Guest post by Adrian Beaumont, who joins us from time to time to provide commentary on elections internationally. Adrian’s work on electoral matters for The Conversation can be found here, and his own website is here.
On February 18, seven Labour MPs defected to form The Independent Group (TIG). In the next two days, another Labour MP and three Conservative MPs also defected. What unites the TIG MPs is their demand for a second Brexit referendum. In an attempt to prevent more defections, Jeremy Corbyn on February 25 announced that Labour would support a second referendum if Labour’s favoured “customs union” Brexit failed to pass the House of Commons.
In the past, major Conservative rebellions have come from the hard right European Research Group (ERG), who want a hard Brexit. As a result, Theresa May has tried to appease the ERG. But on February 26, faced with a rebellion from more moderate Conservatives who were going to vote for Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper’s amendment to delay Brexit, May promised a Commons vote to extend Brexit on March 14. This vote would be preceded by a vote on May’s revised deal (if any) on March 12, and a vote on whether the UK should exit without a deal on March 13. The first two votes are likely to fail. It is not yet clear how the Conservatives will whip their MPs on these votes.
In House of Commons votes on February 27, a Labour amendment that effectively proposed a customs union was defeated by 323 votes to 240, with abstentions from pro-second referendum parties and MPs. A Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) amendment to rule out a “no deal” Brexit at any time was defeated by 324 votes to 288. Cooper’s amendment to hold May to her promise was voted through with government support, but 20 ERG members voted against.
Even if parliament passes a delay on March 14, it still has to be approved unanimously by the 27 EU nations. Both France and Spain, which has its election on April 28, appear opposed to an extension without signs that a deal can be approved by the Commons.
On January 15, May’s original Brexit deal was defeated by a crushing 432 votes to 202, with 118 Conservative rebels. With Labour’s customs union ruled out, and many Labour MPs opposed to a second referendum, there is unlikely to be enough support for a left-wing version of Brexit. Even if Brexit is delayed for a few months, it only postpones the cliff edge of “no deal”.
May is very unlikely to win concessions from the EU that will satisfy the ERG, so there will still be many Conservative rebels on any new deal vote. May’s best chance of passing her deal is to offer it just before the Brexit date, on a “no deal or my deal” basis. The question in that case is whether Labour would feel obliged to do the right thing and let May’s deal pass, likely damaging their vote and costing them the next election. As I wrote on my personal website, it is in Labour’s political interests to oppose May’s deal. If the economy crashes after a “no deal” Brexit, it is likely most voters will blame the Conservative government.
In the last month, Labour has slumped in the polls. The first catalyst was its decision to support Cooper’s amendment to delay Brexit on January 29. An Opinium poll taken in the three days after that vote had a three-point Labour lead becoming a seven-point Conservative lead. Other polls also showed movement against Labour, though to a lesser extent. The British public clearly want Brexit resolved by March 29, and will punish a party that proposes delay. I very much doubt, given the reaction to the Cooper amendment, that support for a second referendum will help Labour with Conservative/Labour swing voters, though it may assist Labour in regaining support from TIG, the Liberal Democrats and Greens.
The second catalyst for Labour’s poll slump was the defections to TIG. All the defectors have criticised Corbyn for his stance on Brexit and anti-semitism. Until the defections, Corbyn did not support a second Brexit referendum, and this is an area where urban lefties strongly opposed him. It is a big problem for a left-wing party to be criticised by former members for antisemitism. In the latest polls, taken before Labour’s support for a second referendum was announced, Labour had dropped about eight points behind the Conservatives on standard voting intentions, and further behind if TIG is included as an option.