Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 17 January 2019

Parliament’s Brexit game

Someone may have done this elsewhere and probably with more accuracy, but I hadn’t seen it so I thought I’d work through the numbers myself. Suppose parliament breaks down into five main factions, with a very approximate indication of their size.

Brexiters - No Deal         100
May loyalists - No FoM   200
People’s Vote                 150
Corbyn loyalists               30
Soft Brexit                      150

You can see how Tuesday’s vote worked out. May’s block alone voted for her deal, while all the other blocks voted against. Note also that the soft Brexit block have no quarrel with the Withdrawal Agreement as such. It is the political declaration about what the UK tries to do after Brexit that they want to change.

The unusual feature of this game is of course that if no other block can get a majority by the end of March, the Brexiters win because the UK leaves without a deal. So the race is now on to get a majority. As we have already seen, May’s deal which effectively ends Freedom of Movement cannot get a majority, because the Brexiters who she courted for two years have turned against her (as they always would).

If May really did try and get a deal for a softer Brexit she would probably get enough, although many Labour soft Brexiters might be reluctant to sign up to anything that came from her. In addition the DUP could end their support for her government, and she might lose a few from her block. A more subtle move is to release her block to vote for something organised by Labour and Tory MPs. That is probably the best chance for a winning coalition, but May has until now proved too stubborn and too partisan to try it. Alternatively she could agree to a second referendum between her deal and Remain, which the People’s Vote block would vote for even if the proposal came from her, but she might still lose the DUP’s support. Sam Lowe and John Springfield have a discussion of May’s options here.

Another possibility, raised in my last post, is that the soft Brexit group and the People’s Vote group unite by offering a Remain vs Soft Brexit referendum. This would have a chance, particularly if Corbyn supported it. It seems clear that the second referendum block cannot win on their own (despite my best efforts to suggest that is the right way forward) while the soft Brexit possibility is still around.

That will be one reason why Corbyn will not declare quickly for a second referendum. So if May remains stubborn and if soft Brexit and People’s Vote fail to combine, we get into a war of attrition. To see which blocks are most durable, we need to think about what happens on the week starting 25th March. [1]

At that point, if no majority is formed over that week, we get No Deal. That tells you that the Brexiter block is the most durable (something May seems unable to understand). In that week May will undoubtedly try to push her deal through as the ‘not a No Deal’ option, but equally MPs will counter with a revoke A50 amendment. The latter possibility tells you that the People’s Vote group and May are more durable blocks than those advocating soft Brexit, because they have something to hope for in a last minute panic. That in turn means that the Soft Brexit block need to get a winning coalition sooner rather than later.

All this assumes that No Deal remains on the table. The only way it could get taken off is for parliament, or May and parliament [2], to commit to revoking Article 50 at a date close to leaving. If that happens we get a new game, because most of the Brexiter block would revert to May's corner, but equally other blocks would become more stubborn. But if this analysis is correct, it suggests she has a better chance of getting a majority for a slightly softer version of her deal if she took No Deal off the table. 

This is almost certainly wrong and incomplete, and I’m more than happy for people to tell me why. 

[1] It would probably be before that date, because whoever wins and stops no deal will need an extension of A50, and the EU may need some time to agree to that. But the EU will probably not grant an extension unless the UK has made up its mind, if only because they believe the threat of No Deal is needed to get the UK to make up its mind.

[2] Thanks to @SpinningHugo for reminding me that May cannot revoke A50 alone. 


  1. If May goes too far towds Opposition (e.g. permanent customs union) surely the risk is she will be deposed by her party. More generally the views of CP and LP members (not just MPs) wd need to be factored in for a complete picture. (Not a criticism, I think the situation is beyond modelling.) Best

  2. Thank you. At least now I can quantify my uncertainty about what is going to happen.

  3. Hi Simon RE your first paragraph, @electionmapsuk on twitter is tracking MPs positions on this one. Their predictions have been pretty good.

  4. I think your blocs are right. You misunderstand May she is not stupid about the Brexiter bloc, she quite rightly realises that they command the majority of her party and will die on a hill.
    Here is the equation she lives by. Soft no brexit Tory mps will not vote her out her office by combining with Corbyn. Rees Mogg et al would do so if it secured hard brexit and tried to remove her. May lives for two things hating foreigners and power. She will crash out or her deal. So long as she is pM there are no other choices and it deluding oneself to say there is.
    I am sorry you misunderstand Corbyn he as much as May is trying to run out the clock, Corbyn will accept a crash out brexit. See Elliot in guardian and others for the disaster socialism belief. You and I might want it to be different but it’s not.
    The only way to avoid no deal is to bring down May, install Corbyn in a national unity government with soft brexit tories and a law requiring a halt A50 then general election. This will not happen.
    There is one last chance I see in the chaos of the week leading to no deal, we get food shortages and panic in supermarkets. This will happen after but it might start early. Under this pressure the government might cave but who knows. Corbyn might decide now is time to call a GE and let clock do it’s worst secure in that he is not to blame. From the theological brexit point of view the pain will be worth it since there is no way back into the EU after brexit day they win by preventing change before 11 pm, nail courage etc. So even with an absolute pre brexit melt down there will be a powerful zealot block doing all they can to run the clock. Worse if the problems starts on both side of channel then the EU will have paid a price so will May think let’s just get rid of these people.

  5. Thank you. As an American trying to follow, this post (also the Dec 8 post with the 2 axis control/money chart) have helped me organize my thoughts.

  6. With both major party leaders leading deeply divided parties, it is interesting to speculate what might happen if Parliament really took the bull by the horns and insisted on a free vote on 4 options in this order:

    no-deal - I agree with your arithmetic and this would fail by a huge majority

    May's deal - We know this would fail by a large majority even if that is composed of people facing in opposite directions

    Soft Brexit -it's not clear from your figures how "second referendum" supporters might vote or whether a few May deal supporters, finding their cause was lost, might then support this. I suspect that this option stands a chance of a slim majority.

    Remain - your analysis does not give a clue how this might pan out but I suggest that most "second referendum" supporters would support this option and that many "soft brexit" supporters really want to vote this way but have been frightened by the deification of the 2016 referendum.

    I suspect if options 3 or 4 managed a majority, it might be sensible to confirm this by a second referendum. Thus Parliament would have exercised it's sovereignty, something difficult for Brexiteers to carp about, and the people would have had chance to update their "will".

  7. I would like to think that the People Vote's supporters are not a single block and that they break down into two blocks 'hypocrites' and 'true democrats'. The hypocrites are using democracy as a flag of convenience. They have no interest in what people really want, they just want to achieve Remain by any means. The true democrats are interested in what people really want, they would support a ballot which includes Remain and Hard Brexit as options.

    Of course it is possible that all 150 are hypocrites. If the referendum had gone 51-49 the other way but 95% of the populace had now decided that they wanted to leave the EU then I am guessing that none of 150 would be calling for a People's Vote.

  8. Another name for the group "Brexiters - No Deal" is (mostly) "MPs who could stand as independents and retain their seats". This raises interesting possibilities, if Brexit doesn't happen then these MPs are likely to hold the balance of power in the next Parliament.

  9. It's a neat Condorcet paradox in the Commons at any rate - they may well be a simple majority for Remain in the country. I can't post a link, but a search for "Wimberley Brexit Condorcet" will find my post.


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