A smaller majority and greater Brexit pressure could force May’s hand
The Lib Dems have their mojo back. Their result in Witney was good but safe seat or not, second is the best-placed loser. It’s winning that counts and it was a win that was delivered in Richmond Park on Thursday. After more than ten years without a gain, the campaign surge, the tactical votes and the Friday celebration must come as a long-overdue reminder of the good old days – and possibly the good young days. That’s yet to be seen.
What it also does, in terms of raw maths, is reduce the notional Conservative majority to 8. True, Sinn Fein abstentions increase that a little and if put in a corner, votes might be won from Ulster and from Carswell (at a price, presumably), but what was already a tight situation just got tighter.
What the Richmond Park result shouldn’t do is panic the government. The by-election was an unusual contest in an unusual seat. Its dynamics are unlikely to be repeated and certainly wouldn’t be at a general election, where the government of the country is at stake. Even the scenario of a Con-LD battle in a heavily and passionately Remain seat is relatively rare. The idea that Richmond Park is somehow representative of a national anti-Brexit reaction is for the birds.
What we should take seriously is the prospect of a 2017 general election. The government is under pressure from the Commons, the Lords and the courts. Of these, the courts get first shot, next week. If the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the High Court then we’re in for a parliamentary battle to trigger Article 50 – or, more accurately, over the terms under which it’ll be triggered.
For all Olney vowed to oppose the Brexit process even beginning, the reality is that the 9 Lib Dem MPs are irrelevant to that end. The Commons will vote Article 50 through if that’s what’s needed. They might not, however, do so in a way that gives the government the blank sheet it’d like. Any Bill can be amended and you can well see Remain MPs trying to alter it so as to, for example, mandate the government to stay within the Single Market.
In all probability, the Commons would fail on that score. Labour isn’t sufficiently united and there won’t be enough Tory rebels.
What it also won’t do is legislate for a second referendum because unlike in the message going out to the electorate, MPs know that a second referendum would be a fraud. There would be no ‘Remain’ and no ‘try again’ option; the choices would be the Brexit deal as negotiated or a chaotic exit – which is not really any choice at all. That’s why it’s so important to those who want to make Brexit as Light as possible (or to frustrate it entirely) to tie the government’s hands before negotiations get going.
But if the Commons isn’t that much of a concern to the government, the Lords might be. Emboldened by the Richmond Park result and already looking for an excuse to both give the government a bloody nose and minimise the effect of Brexit, Lib Dem peers might well do what the Commons couldn’t and, together with their Labour colleagues, some cross-benchers and perhaps even some Tory rebels, attach conditions the government cannot live with. And while they’d be on extremely sticky ground opposing Article 50, amending the legislation is a different matter; that’s one thing the Lords is there for.
If the Bill does come back down the corridor to the Commons with a series of directives to the government contained within it, that puts Theresa May in an awkward situation. Moral pressure might prove effective after the Lords have made a token stand but if Labour and Lib Dem peers feel that the public mood has changed, they could dig their heels in, knowing that the Parliament Act couldn’t be invoked for another 12 months, by when the Brexit Date would be pushing the 2020 general election.
So the alternative is to force an election on the specifics of Brexit. That does of course mean putting at least some kind of plan forward and it’s clear that right now, the government is some way from being able to do that. But whether to the country or to the House, it will at some point before too long need to say more about what its objectives are.
Can an election be forced given the FTPA? The simple answer is yes. The first and best option is to put a motion down and dare the other MPs to vote it down. The reserve plan is, if the dissolution motion fails, to force a No Confidence vote and ensure no new government can form. Once that’s happened, an election follows two weeks later.
On the low politics angle, there would no doubt be advice going to Mrs May to the extent that it’d be sensible to capitalise on the big poll leads while she can and while Corbyn is still in place. Neither can be guaranteed for 2020 but the opportunity to ditch him before May 2017 will be limited in the extreme.
At the moment, the odds on offer for a 2017 election vary widely, from evens with bet365 to 9/4 with 188bet. Evens is too short but anything top side of 6/4 probably contains some value.