Why all is not as it seems in the politics of Brexit

Image caption My St Valentine's Day morning view of the stage being set for another day of pro and anti-Brexit pageantry at Westminster

Happy St Valentine's Day

On Thursday, MPs had expected to be heading back to their loved ones at the start of their February half term recess.

In the event, they had to content themselves with another thrilling Brexit debate. And no week off.

It was the latest instalment of the long-running saga of backbench amendments to yet another "withdrawal motion" presented by Theresa May. Although the resulting heavy Government defeat was non-binding, it demonstrated yet again the perils of Theresa May's negotiating position with Michel Barnier and co.

Each time, it's up to the Speaker John Bercow to decide which ones should be debated in the Commons and put to a vote.

Among the amendments which were not, in the event, selected for debate by the Speaker, had been one tabled by Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green Roger Godsiff. But the thinking behind his suggestions still merits examination as an illustration of how things are not necessarily as they seem in this Brexit debate.

It's like a hall of distorting mirrors.

Image copyright Labour Party
Image caption Roger Godsiff campaigned for Leave during the 2016 EU referendum

Mr Godsiff's amendment calls for a further referendum if Theresa May cannot come back to the Commons with a deal capable of commanding a parliamentary majority.

In that event, Mr Godsiff says the government would have to ask for an extension to Article 50 beyond the due leaving date of 29 March, ask Parliament to rescind Article 50, or hold another referendum with three options: the PM's Brexit deal, No Deal or, failing either of those, Remaining in the EU.

What's intriguing about Mr Godsiff's intervention is he campaigned for a Leave vote in the referendum: (his constituents, incidentally, voted to remain).

And yet the idea of another referendum is generally seen as the preserve of arch-remainers as a precursor, perhaps, to keeping Britain in the EU after all, an exit from Brexit.

With more than a hint of irony, it's understood the prime movers behind the so-called People's Vote are infuriated by Mr Godsiff's proposal, because they think that, either by accident or design, it might ultimately result in the exact opposite of its stated aim, undermining, rather than strengthening, the case for a further so-called people's vote.

That's why the Tory backbenchers Sarah Wollaston and Philip Lee, both strong supporters of a further vote, were persuaded last month to withdraw their amendment calling for one.

Why?

Could it be because the People's Vote campaigners thought it would expose how little parliamentary support there is for another referendum?

So could Mr Godsiff's proposal turn out itself to be something of an Aunt Sally? Accidentally on purpose?

Party tensions

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Labour's line of another referendum being "on the table" plays well in remain supporting constituencies such as Warwick

His manoeuvre also exposes the growing tensions within his own party on this issue.

Officially Labour are sticking steadfastly to their line that another referendum is merely "on the table" if there's no general election: it's an idea that plays much better in constituencies such as remain-supporting Warwick and Leamington, which Labour captured from the Conservatives at the last election, than it does in leave-voting Walsall North and Stoke South, 'core' Labour areas which they lost to the Tories and need to win back.

On last Sunday's Andrew Marr Show on BBC One, the party's deputy leader, the West Bromwich East MP Tom Watson, appeared to depart from Labour's posture of constructive ambiguity by suggesting it could support another public vote if talks between the government and opposition were to fail.

Watch this space.

But it's another of the questions posed in Mr Godsiff's measure that's adding to the strains within the Conservatives' ranks: the possibility that Brexit may be delayed.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Grassroots Tories have written a letter to their party chairman saying: "We are deeply worried about the impact of extending Article 50 beyond March 29th 2019"

Activists in Nuneaton and South Staffordshire are among more than 40 grassroots Tories who have written to the party chairman Brandon Lewis, saying: "We are deeply worried about the impact of extending Article 50 beyond March 29th 2019 and reports that the government is seeking a 'customs arrangement' with the EU and may reach out to the Labour Party.

"The British people spoke to us very clearly on June 23rd 2016 and gave us a mandate to leave the European Union, no customs arrangements, no deals.....The British people did not vote for a deal, they voted to leave."

They go on to point towards this May's local elections.

The electoral cycle dictates it is the seats which the Conservatives won in their high-water mark year of 2015 which are due to be contested this time round.

The Tories say: "We fear that any perceived betrayal of of manifesto commitments could well result in severe defeats for Conservative candidates."

Their anxiety that the government "may reach out to the Labour Party" will no doubt be aggravated still further by suggestions that between 40 and 60 Labour "moderate" MPs are actively looking for ways to support a deal, which might pull ministers further towards what's commonly known as "a soft Brexit".

Whether or not Theresa May really is deliberately running down the clock, the clock itself seems to be making a decent job of things by itself, without any help from the prime minister: tick tock tick tock...

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