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Steve Baker claims that 80 Tory MPs are ready to vote against a Chequers-type deal, but even 20 would be enough to bring down the government (CHRIS MCANDREW CC BY 3.0)


The future course of UK politics — thanks to Brexit and the Corbynista takeover of Labour — is more uncertain this autumn than it has been at any point in a generation. The form Brexit will take is one question, but the very structure of our party system also hangs in the balance.

It is often said that the Conservatives have a tremendous survival instinct; they always pull back from the brink and rally around a leader, the argument goes, when they realise the alternative is the prospect of defeat and years in opposition. It is likewise stated that the Labour tribe are haunted by the spectre of 1981. Of the 28 Labour MPs who defected to the SDP only four were re-elected in 1983. They were joined on the new party’s bench by party leader Roy Jenkins, who had won the Glasgow Hillhead by-election the previous year (it would now be unthinkable for a non-Scottish politician to be elected for a Scottish constituency) and the 23-year-old Charles Kennedy. What is more, the 1981 split in progressive politics helped to keep the Left out of power for a further 16 years. These assumptions about the two main parties are generally true — but they might not be this autumn.

Parliament will be wholly consumed by Brexit. At the time of writing, the House of Commons has only four government bills before it — two of which, including the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwelling) Bill, are uncontroversial and frankly trivial. At this stage in a normal parliamentary session the Commons would expect to be dealing with a dozen or more pieces of legislation. Other than the review of parliamentary boundaries, the Commons will be supping on a diet of pure Brexit.

After the Salzburg summit, seemingly presaging the death of Theresa May’s Che-quers plans, the Prime Minister must decide in which direction to tack. Her public utterances have been designed to reassure her own Eurosceptic MPs and the wider Tory membership that she is not ready to offer further compromises to the European Union. This strategy, however, is not working — the Brexiteers of the European Research Group of MPs are so distrustful of May post-Chequers that nearly all are convinced that this is a charade being played to help the Prime Minister through a potentially extremely difficult party conference. May’s Eurosceptic critics are, in private, extremely doubtful that she will embrace their favoured Canada-style free trade agreement as a basis for future relations with the EU.

Steve Baker, the de facto whip for the ERG MPs, claims that up to 80 of his Conservative parliamentary colleagues will vote against a Chequers or a son-of-Chequers type deal. Since Labour are also pledged to oppose it — and Labour’s ardent Europhiles would be united with its smaller band of five or six Brexiteer rebels in this opposition — such a deal would stand little chance of getting through the Commons. Baker’s 80 may well be an exaggeration of the numbers who would actually vote against the government on its deal, as defeat for the government could well presage its fall. The true figure is probably closer to 40, and if it came to a confidence vote, precipitated by the issue of our future relationship with the EU, fewer still would vote to bring the government down. But even 20 Tory MPs, when the government’s effective majority is 12 or 13, would be more than enough to collapse the government — and there are certainly 20-plus Conservative MPs for whom the terms of our leaving the EU are much, much more important than the survival of the current government.
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