Rebellious moderate pro EU Tory MPs are now more powerful than the DUP

Theresa May in the House of Commons on Wednesday January 9. A 200 vote margin defeat for the government next week, on January 15, would be catastrophic for Mrs May's authority
Theresa May in the House of Commons on Wednesday January 9. A 200 vote margin defeat for the government next week, on January 15, would be catastrophic for Mrs May's authority

On Tuesday I will be in Westminster to cover the Brexit vote.

We are living through the most important moment in British politics since World War Two.

To say, as people do, that this is the biggest crisis since Suez, implies that the two are of comparable significance, but the current drama is bigger than the one in 1956 after Egypt nationalised the canal.

My sense is that Britain, France and Israel could have pressed ahead with their plan to stop that nationalisation and that their relationship with America would have been altered long-term in a favourable way.

But, like a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which has much to recommend it, there would have been huge risks in such a course.

The scale of the UK decision to leave the European Union, and the multiple and bitter splits in political, economic and public opinion over that decision, mean that there is no modern precedent for the current chaos at Westminster.

This bitterness has been greatly exacerbated by the impossibly tight parliamentary arithmetic after the 2017 general election. Prior to that poll, when the Conservatives had an overall majority in the House of Commons, there was a resigned cross-party acceptance that a ‘hard Brexit’ was going to happen, in which the UK left both the single market and customs union.

Now parliament is riven with a large number of differing political factions, which sometimes overlap with, or contradict, each other.

Note, for example, the sub-plot involving Jeremy Corbyn, the man who was long ambivalent about IRA terror, and the DUP. Mr Corbyn, since he became Labour leader, has been careful not to alienate unionists in Northern Ireland. He was reluctant to call for a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which is disliked by unionists (but which was nonetheless called by this Tory government, which is propped up by the DUP).

He has spoken disapprovingly of a UK internal Irish Sea border.

This is because Mr Corbyn knows he might rely on the DUP to form a government if Theresa May’s administration falls (in which case he will have 14 day to cobble together a rainbow coalition, that would necessarily involve all other parties including the DUP). Also, he might need them after a general election in which Labour is the largest party and the DUP again holds the balance of power (a likely scenario).

The difficulty of predicting what will happen between now and March 29 is illustrated by the fact that the government itself often does not know what is coming next.

On Saturday December 8 I wrote a column examining some things that might happen after of Mrs May’s scheduled December 11 vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. I did not think she might pull the vote altogether, a possibility first reported in the Sunday papers the next day. As late as Tuesday morning, cabinet ministers were unaware that the vote scheduled for that very evening had been withdrawn.

Here are three numbers to bear in mind in the coming days.

The first number is 200.

That is the number of Tory MPs who backed Theresa May in her leadership confidence vote, and is roughly the number of guaranteed supporters of the government on Tuesday.

Add in a dozen or two MPs from other parties, and there could be a rough 420 to 220 vote against the deal – the sort of 200 majority loss for Theresa May that would be catastrophic for her authority.

The next number is 127.

That is the number of Tory MPs who opposed Mrs May in the party confidence vote, and is roughly the number who would countenance ‘no deal’. Add DUP MPs and Labour backbenchers such as Kate Hoey, and you might get to 150 — tiny in comparison to the 500 or so MPs who are determined to stop no deal.

The third number is 17.

That is the number of Tory MPs who supported the amendment that the speaker John Bercow allowed that requires the government to come up with a plan B within three days if this deal falls.

Such pro EU Tories are more numerous and powerful than 10 DUP MPs,hence the government lost.

It shows that many MPs will try to seize the initiative from the government, and suggests that Parliament will find a way to stop no deal.

I sense that a general election is coming, even though an experienced MP tells me it will not happen because too many MPs fear it.

But the government has almost lost control of events, and ‘no deal’ makes a total loss of control likely.

A no confidence motion in the government might pass with support from a core of Tories so passionately opposed to ‘no deal’ they will turn on their own party if need be.

Such a vote is the most likely way this fixed-term Parliament will end.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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