Boris Johnson has a fighting chance of passing his Brexit deal through the House of Commons without MPs forcing him into a customs union with the EU or holding a second referendum, according to analysis by the Financial Times.
Based on a forecast of MPs’ voting intentions, the prime minister has a slender majority of five to see through his Brexit deal, with 320 expected to vote for Mr Johnson’s deal while 315 may oppose it.
After being refused the chance to hold another so-called meaningful vote on the deal by House of Commons speaker John Bercow on Monday, the Johnson government will instead introduce the withdrawal agreement bill to the House of Commons on Tuesday. This complex but important piece of legislation is required to deliver Brexit, but will be challenged and changed by MPs opposed to his approach.
A vote in principle, the “second reading” of the legislation, is expected to pass, thanks to the cross-party coalition that has indicated its support for Mr Johnson’s deal. But the government will then have to pass a “programme” motion, which defines the timetable for the bill. This may prove the most difficult challenge to passing a deal by October 31.
If the government is able to win this motion and control the procedures for passing the withdrawal agreement bill (WAB), it will face amendments during the committee stage, where it is scrutinised by MPs. This could possibly happen on Wednesday.
The government is bracing itself for amendments that could derail its plans but the FT’s analysis suggests Mr Johnson could see them off.
The greatest threat is an amendment forcing the UK to enter a customs union with the EU after Brexit. Last time the issue was voted on by MPs, during a series of indicative votes attempting to break the Brexit impasse back in April, it failed to pass by a slim margin of three.
Since then, however, a significant number of Conservative MPs have changed their minds and are rallying behind Mr Johnson’s deal. This is particularly notable in the one nation group of moderate Tories, whose members do not wish to stop Brexit even if in private they might prefer a customs union.
Paul Masterton, a one nation Tory MP, explained the circumstances for voting had changed. “We now have a new deal and MPs need a clean vote on whether or not to approve it. These amendments are designed to wreck the progress that has been made,” he said.
All parties opposed to Brexit are likely to vote for the customs union amendment to wreck Mr Johnson’s deal, except the Scottish National party whose 35 MPs are expected to abstain or vote against in order to state their fundamental opposition to Brexit.
Northern Ireland’s Democractic Unionist party has not yet decided how to vote. If the SNP and the DUP’s 10 Westminster MPs vote against, the customs union amendment would fail by 89 votes. If both abstain it would fail by 44.
The other amendment that will challenge the government is to put the deal to a confirmatory referendum, presumably against the option of remaining in the EU. Last time a second plebiscite was voted on by MPs, it lost by a majority of nine.
The FT’s analysis suggests a repeat vote could fail to pass by as many as 41, as the politics in parliament has shifted significantly.
Although 20 or so Labour MPs appear willing to support another referendum, there are at least 19 Labour MPs who are still expected to vote against it.
The number of Conservative MPs supporting a second referendum has also dropped significantly (to zero) since the April indicative votes. Were any Tories to back this amendment, they would be kicked out of the party.
Some independent Conservatives — the majority of whom lost the Tory whip for voting against the government to avert a no-deal Brexit in September — are eager to rejoin their old party and are therefore likely to vote against another referendum. One prominent member of this group predicted “most but not all” would vote with the government. Three are likely to back a referendum: Guto Bebb, Justine Greening and Dominic Grieve.
The DUP has said its MPs also expect to say no to a second referendum amendment. It is therefore difficult to see how this amendment could find a majority, even if more independent Conservatives changed their minds.