Conventional wisdom is that the Tory political machine in Parliament is poorly organised. The whips struggle to contain each and every rebellion and things have got so bad that the government have generally given up contesting any non-binding vote: better to lose and say it doesn’t matter than put a big effort into something you cannot win.
But this week they seem to be winning big – and on something that really does matter – and their allies are Labour MPs.
Three times in the last week stories have appeared in the press suggesting 25 (or 30) Labour MPs are preparing to vote with the Government over Brexit, not because they are supporters of leaving the European Union but because they are more frightened of ‘no deal’ than they are hopeful that either a “People’s Vote” or a general election can be delivered.
The stories themselves are fundamentally dubious – and three of the MPs named in the first of these pieces – Rachel Reeves, Chris Bryant and Lucy Powell – all rubbished the suggestion and have also all confirmed that they have never even been approached by the Government to talk about the issue, never mind engage in serious talks.
But in a Parliament on the verge of a nervous breakdown a lot of Labour MPs are choosing to believe the stories anyway.
In part they are doing so because the leadership’s line – that they can vote against Brexit to force a general election – is seen to be patently ridiculous by many: forcing a general election would require two-thirds of the Commons to vote for it or for Tory MPs to repeatedly back votes of no confidence in their own party’s government – two things which many believe are simply never going to happen.
Delivering a People’s Vote could be much simpler in that it only requires a majority in the Commons to do the job and, as Lord John Kerr recently pointed out, there are plenty of opportunities to force the executive to act on the will of Parliament on this. But the continued lack of enthusiasm for this idea from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in particular is making some Labour MPs despair of it happening. Not even the clear signals from Plaid Cymru and the SNP that they will back a People’s Vote seem to have moved the leadership.
And the problem with voting against the deal with no viable alternative is that it will automatically lead to a no deal scenario: indeed that is why hardline Tory anti-Europeans are so keen on voting with Labour here.
The irony of all this is that unless the Labour leadership gets a grip then the result could be the last thing anybody in Labour (other than maybe Kate Hoey) wants: Corbyn and co could hand May a political triumph with a delivered Brexit deal, while Labour MPs who fundamentally hate the idea of Brexit will end up voting to make it happen.
In Scotland and Wales the Nationalists would be the big winners while in England the Lib Dems (who have been rising steadily if very slowly in the polls) could hope to recover some more ground. It wouldn’t take many gains by any of these parties to make a Corbyn government look like an impossible dream, especially if Labour starts to splinter in the aftermath.
Backing a People’s Vote would mean the Labour leadership shelving, for now, their demand for a new election, but on the other hand would open the opportunity to seriously look like a government-in-waiting, calling the shots on the biggest foreign and domestic policy issue – outside questions of war and peace – for the last half century.