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Without frontbench cooperation, Brexit may never happen

4 min read

The Prime Minister knows that if she can’t get Brussels to agree a change to the backstop, the new mood of unity in her party will quickly fall apart, writes Anushka Asthana 

Each Wednesday I appear on Peston, Robert Peston’s live political programme on ITV, and take hold of the giant screen (“Screeny”) to try to display interesting graphics. The aim is to offer analysis of the big, moving political stories.

This season the producers created a special “Brexit box” as we expected to spend a fair amount of time talking about Britain leaving the EU.

But given how much Brexit has come to dominate the political narrative, we might as well have called it the Brexit screen and created a box for anything else that came up.

Theresa May’s struggle to extricate the UK from the EU – and more specifically to persuade parliament to back her way of doing it – has been rich pickings for anyone interesting in politics and data.

For us at Peston, it has meant repeatedly attempting to do the parliamentary mathematics over Brexit; dividing parties into tribes, analysing their changing views and drawing conclusions on how MPs will vote at key moments.

The big takeaway has been that in most circumstances it is extremely hard to find a majority among this group of politicians (who returned to parliament after the 2017 election with a more soft-Brexit slant) in favour of any specific deal, without frontbench cooperation.

And that challenge has not disappeared simply because May managed to create a winning coalition in favour of Graham Brady’s amendment to seek a replacement for the controversial backstop.

The vote has definitely bought the prime minister time, but the real test is yet to come, when she returns from Brussels.

And even if, by then, the EU has agreed to remove the backstop from the withdrawal agreement (which would require a significant change of position) then it is not guaranteed that May will maintain this latest voting coalition.

After all, some European Research Group MPs have cited reasons other than that backstop for their opposition to the deal. For example, Andrew Bridgen told Channel 4 News that he also objected to the £39bn divorce bill being paid without a final trade agreement being signed. Meanwhile, the concerns of John Redwood in not backing the Brady amendment are shared by other of his colleagues who did.

And if May cannot get that backstop removed, then her winning coalition is certain to fall about.

In that situation ERG MPs will once again reject her deal, and while many of them would prefer moving to a no-deal scenario than a softer version of Brexit (perhaps inside a customs union), others who backed May will do everything they can to avoid what they see as a possible cliff-edge.

So what then?

It’s back to the Peston mathematics, which is that the only way to make the numbers add up to deliver Brexit is for the two front-benches to work together to find a solution. Overall, we tended to find that a slightly softer version of the deal, closer to a full customs union (and accepting the cost that would have regarding an independent trade policy) would be most acceptable to most MPs.

So far the politics has been too toxic to allow that to happen and understandably so – it could be fatally damaging for both leaders.

For Theresa May it means working with a man who is her political nemesis, and potentially finding a majority in parliament that breaks her party in two. How would she or the Conservatives recover from a deal that is seen as Brexit in Name Only by large swathes of her party?

For Jeremy Corbyn, it means the risk of “getting into bed with the Tories” slurs and taking on the passionate desire for a second referendum (in order to overturn Brexit) in large parts of Labour. Given those who suspect Corbyn’s motives as a long-time critic of the EU, helping the Conservatives to deliver Brexit could result in widespread anger.

All of that is why, when I once suggested frontbench cooperation as the way forward on the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast, which I present, a political colleague suggested that I was being naïve, and that it could never happen.

But without it, Brexit may never happen. 

Anushka Asthana is associate editor at the Guardian

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