Theresa May needs an LBJ

After the historically unprecedented defeat of May’s Brexit deal, what comes next?  In her speech to the House of Commons, Theresa May promised not to run the clock down and to reach out to senior parliamentarians to work out what Brexit deal could pass the House of Commons.  Unfortunately, this promising development was immediately undercut by briefing that she wished to maintain her “red lines” which just can’t be done if she wants to get a Brexit deal through Parliament.

It was said of Lyndon B Johnson that nobody knew better how to count votes in a legislature – an essential political skill in the USA where a division between the executive and the legislature is the norm.  Theresa May desperately needs an LBJ to tell her what deal can be passed in Parliament.

However, without claiming I have the skills of an LBJ, the size of the defeat makes it clear that she needs to switch 116 votes without losing any.  This rule out any minor fiddles and means she needs to find a group with that many votes to pass any legislation.  There are lots of smaller groupings with interesting ideas, but they don’t have the votes.

The only possible options with those kinds of votes are as follows:

1.    Hard-core Brexiters plus the DUP

This group can be swiftly ruled out.  The things they want are incompatible with what is on offer from the EU, and so even if they could be brought on a side without losing other votes (which seems highly unlikely), they cannot pass a deal.

2.    Labour leadership

It is evident that if the Labour leadership got behind a deal, they could swing enough votes to get it through Parliament.  Unfortunately, what they are asking for is another species of the unicorn (a permanent customs union / close single market deal but with no free movement and ability to strike trade deals).  However, a Norway proposal might be something they feel they have to support (although I would expect that they would seek an early general election as part of the deal). It would involve amending the Political Declaration in a Norway direction.  If a deal can be done with the Labour leadership, this would lead to a solid majority.

3.    People’s Vote campaign

Offering a referendum on her deal would bring People’s Vote campaigners (and other quieter sympathisers) on board.  This is a block of 100 or more votes and is likely to get to a majority as the clock ticks down.  It is also the only conceivable way she could deliver her “red lines”.

So, a Norway deal with the Labour leadership or a People’s Vote are the only possible options for Theresa May to secure the deal that she says she wants.  If she continues to stick her head in the sand and not recognise the options above, it is inevitable that Parliament will have to take further control of the process.

* Mark Goodrich is a former vice-chair of Richmond & Twickenham Liberal Democrats, a former expat who saw Brexit unfold from the other side of the world and now lives in Sevenoaks, Kent

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13 Comments

  • John Marriott 16th Jan '19 - 4:00pm

    @Mark Goodrich
    No, she needs a dose of humility and stop being Ken Clarke’s “bloody awkward woman”.

    @Jenny Barnes
    I’ve already floated this on another thread; but here goes again:
    1. Assuming the No Confidence Motion fails and May doesn’t produce a rabbit out of tge hat by Monday, Parliament takes control of the process.
    2. May approaches the EU to extend Article 50 to allow another Referendum (time period to be decided).
    3. If the extension is approved by the EU, May and Parliament get together to come up with a compromise deal to be ratified by a free vote of MPs. If they wish, they could convene a Citizens’ Panel to scrutinise what they come up with.
    4. A new Referendum is held, where voters are asked to rank the following in order of preference : Brexit with Deal / Brexit with no Deal / Remain.

    People could, if they wished, rank only two options or even vote for only one. When the votes are counted, unless one option passed the 50% threshold on the first round, the option that came third would be removed and its second choices applied to the top two. The option with the most support would then be ratified by Parliament.

    How does that sound?

  • John Marriott 16th Jan '19 - 4:04pm

    Sorry, for “awkward” read “difficult”, although the former adjective would have been the one I would have chosen had I been Mr Clarke!

  • Kevin Hawkins 16th Jan '19 - 5:15pm

    @John Marriott
    I agree with your conclusion about having a three way vote. However, there is a better method of counting the votes than the one you suggest which is essentially the Alternative Vote.
    If no option passes the 50% threshold then eliminate each of the three options in turn and see which pair of options has the highest support based on their combined 1st/2nd preferences. Why is this fairer than AV? Because AV always eliminates the option in third place even if that option might be supported as the best compromise. I read about this method many years ago in Enid Lakeman’s book “Voting in Democracies” (She was then the director of the Electoral Reform Society and a well-known Liberal). Note that the method doesn’t assume which, if any, of the methods might be regarded as a compromise. The count would take longer but at least you would get the result that the highest number of people support even if it is not their first preference.

  • Those arguing for a second referendum should remember (and factor into their plans) the salutary lesson of the 1997 Winchester by-election.

    For those who weren’t around at the time, Mark Oaten (Lib Dem) won the seat in the 1997 general election with a majority of two. The result was challenged in the courts by the losing Conservative resulting in a by-election a few months later which Mark Oaten won with a majority of 21,556 (68%).

    Be careful what you wish for!

  • Vince Cable has said publicly that the vote was the beginning of the end for Brexit, but that’s by no means certain. Far too many things could far too easily go wrong given that Parliament has failed to find a majority FOR any position but only AGAINST every possibility suggested. The danger is that that we could easily drift onto the rocks of the legal default and crash out.

    So, the Lib Dems could usefully promote a bit of what I once saw described ‘corporate’ aikido – or in this case ‘political’ aikido. Wikipedia explains that aikido is “a martial art … that practitioners [can] use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury”. How might this be done?

    There is apparently a big majority against No Deal and it would change everything if those MPs could come together to change the default position from Leave to Remain. I have no idea how that might work procedurally but (to paraphrase Peter Hennessy on C4 last night) if it requires new precedents to be invented then so be it.

    The great advantage of that is that it would allow Remain-leaning MPs with Leave-majority constituencies to say to their electorates that they are acting to protect them from what everyone except a far-right fringe agrees would be a disaster. Leave promised a good deal would be easy so let them find it and deliver it. They after all are in control.

    That would put the onus on the ERG and fellow-travellers to come up with a plan which, of course, they couldn’t do because there is no good plan to be had. That could then be thrown back at them indefinitely, “YOU said it would be easy, YOU had control, but YOU still didn’t deliver”. That would go a long way (although not enough in itself) towards minimising any ensuing bitterness between Leave and Remain camps while Rees-Mogg and Co could indulge in their own private recriminations and civil war.

  • Helen Dudden 16th Jan '19 - 7:28pm

    I’m going to write what a lot of people feel about this subject. Let down, tired of all the bickering and arguments.
    Like it or not, a vote to leave the EU was made.

  • John Marriott 16th Jan '19 - 7:41pm

    @Jenny Barnes
    I included May more out of sympathy, which she probably doesn’t deserve. Clearly, if she won’t play ball she might have to be bypassed. My reasoning is that we actually vote for an MP and not for a government, not that most people really consider that. The problem of ignoring the Executive completely would create problems when you confront the EU.

    @Kevin Hawkins
    I’m no expert on voting. I just feel that it was a binary choice that landed us in the mess in which we find ourselves now. Whatever turns you on, although, at first reading, what you appear to be proposing isn’t that different from what I suggested. As long as we don’t just get a Yes or a No as before. We should not forget, although it gets continually ignored, that, strictly speaking, only 38% of those eligible to vote actually voted to leave, while 27% never voted at all.

  • Helen Dudden 16th Jan '19 - 7:55pm

    If members of the population choose not to vote then it’s up to them. I did vote, I’m saddened to see the total mayhem and continued infighting. Voting for an MP, to have a say in how our country can be improved and maintained.
    There are other issues that need attention.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Jan '19 - 6:38pm

    If a no deal Brexit could be taken off the table, then the choice would be between a new deal and no Brexit. Parliament must be given control of the process on the understanding that if they can’t agree on what deal is best that a further referendum conducted on agreed terms and binding should be conducted. A Citizens’ Assembly could be part of the road map to a new referendum.

  • Jayne Mansfield 17th Jan '19 - 8:25pm

    @ Jenny Barnes,
    You talk sense Jenny.

    Leavers said they wanted to take back control, well then control should rest with our parliamentarians.

    Despite being the possessor of a ‘womb’, I refuse to enter into this hysteria about no deal being a possibility. There aren’t enough destructive nihilists in parliament .

    Mrs May is as you say, brittle as most unyielding people are. Her claims that the choice is between a) her deal or no deal, b) her deal or a Corbyn government ( which could, if the electorate chose, be voted out of office in 5 years) are desperation personified.

    The Prime Minister needs another, but considerably longer, bracing walking holiday. One that starts at the exit to the House of commons. For all our sakes.

  • @Peter Hirst -not necessarily. At the moment this is in the hands of MP’s and they could rule out No Deal (which necessitates, within the next 10 weeks, repealing the law they voted for overwhelmingly in March 2017) but decide that the choice is then between different forms of Brexit (Canada, Norway, May, Chequers for example).

    Whether they can actually agree/get a majority for anything at all is another matter.

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