Why Fear the Brexit Mutineers? Because They Can Back Up Their Threats
Dr Christopher Raymond looks at the brewing rebellion within the Tory party that threatens to wipe out the Prime Minister’s majority and plunge the party into crisis.
Several newspapers have recently taken to naming and shaming 15 Conservative MPs threatening to defy the party line in regards to enshrining the date on which the UK leaves the European Union in law. The Telegraph, Daily Mail, Express, and others ran extensive coverage of the 15 MPs in an effort to inform readers about how these MPs might be able to use this issue to exert influence that undermines elements of Brexit favoured by politicians and voters most motivated to leave the EU. While past talk of pro-Remain rebellion on the Conservative backbenches has so far amounted to little public consequence, the attention paid to these particular MPs this time reflects the fact that most pose a credible threat to party unity and the government’s plans for Brexit.
Brexit and Threats to Conservative Party Unity
Ever since the referendum, commentators have noted the possibility of rebellion among the Conservatives’ ranks by pro-Remain Conservative MPs seeking to prevent a hard Brexit. This threat only intensified after the 2017 elections reduced the Conservative government from a majority to a minority dependent on DUP support. With fewer MPs on the government’s backbenches, the impact of any one defection has increased, which increases the incentives for pro-Remain MPs to threaten defection and demand concessions from the government.
To be sure, there have been several vocal defections on EU-related divisions since the 2016 referendum. Pro-Remain MPs like Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry have made the case against a hard Brexit, both in public debates and in the Commons. On a number of divisions, they have even voted against their government to express this opposition.
However, such open defiance of the party has been limited. While the government has been defeated on a number of divisions since the 2017 elections, it has not been defeated on any of the divisions relating to its plans to leave the EU. Moreover, the Conservatives have displayed a high level of cohesion on each of the recorded divisions relating to the UK’s future relationship with the EU since Brexit. Using a measure of the degree to which Conservative MPs have voted for the same position – ranging from 0 (complete disunity) to 1 (where all MPs adopt the same position) – 97.5 per cent or more of all Conservative MPs have voted to support the government’s position on Brexit-related divisions since June 2016; since June 2017, 99 per cent or more of all Conservative MPs have voted to support the government’s position.
Naturally, the cohesion observed on Brexit-related divisions may understate the threats to the government’s plans posed by pro-Remain MPs threatening rebellion. The government may have been strategic in deciding which proposals would be decided and at what time (perhaps after much behind-the-scenes negotiating with its backbenches), which might mask the true level of rancour within the party. That said, the lack of rebellion defies the predictions made heretofore.
Why these MPs?
Having faced little rebellion on Brexit-related motions since Brexit, the question then turns to understanding why these 15 MPs’ recent threats are being taken seriously. Given that the majority of Conservative MPs declared their support for remaining in the EU during the referendum in 2016, these 15 rebel MPs are not likely a threat due to their personal views on the matter. If the threat of rebellion against the government’s plans was due primarily to pro-Remain MPs expressing their personal views, the government’s plans to leave the EU would have been defeated by mass rebellion within the party long ago.
Instead, these 15 MPs’ threats must be taken seriously because the majority represent constituencies in which a majority of voters backed remaining in the EU in 2016. Using estimates of the constituency-level leave vote in the 2016 referendum produced by Chris Hanretty, we see that while the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs represent constituencies in which a majority of voters backed leaving the EU, most of the Brexit mutineers represent constituencies in which a majority backed remaining in the EU. A defection by the eight mutineers representing constituencies in which a majority was estimated as backing Remain would threaten the government’s ability to pass legislation; a defection by the other seven MPs – in which the estimated Leave vote was just above 50 per cent – would doom the government outright.
Why does representing a pro-Remain constituency make these MPs’ threats to the government’s plans so credible – especially when considering that earlier threats did not materialise? The answer lies in the fact these MPs’ constituencies allows them to claim a mandate independent from that of the government. Representing constituencies in which sizeable numbers of constituents voted to Remain, these MPs can claim a mandate to represent their constituents’ interests even if it means rebelling against their government’s plans. Because many of these MPs’ constituency associations likely lean against a hard Brexit, and because many of their constituents likely oppose a hard Brexit, these MPs may be rewarded locally – by being re-selected and re-elected in the next general election (whenever that may be) – for defying the party to represent their constituents’ interests. Thus, these MPs’ threats to the government’s agenda are credible, which might explain the level of attention paid to them by pro-Brexit media.
Consequences for the Government’s Plans
A credible threat of defection by pro-Remain backbench MPs can only make the government’s efforts to negotiate a deal with the EU that is satisfying to both its pro-Leave and pro-Remain MPs (not to mention the EU) more difficult. Certainly, these ‘mutineers’ must be careful not to overplay their hand, as undermining unity within their ranks reduces the government’s ability to negotiate a coherent agreement with the EU (potentially leading to a hard Brexit by default). That said, the fact the mere threat of rebellion on setting a final date for Brexit received this much attention suggests the pro-Remain voices within the Conservative Party might have found their voice.