Boris Johnson might yet get Brexit done: Counting the votes

Former London mayor and Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson. (Ben Stansall, AFP)
Former London mayor and Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson. (Ben Stansall, AFP)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will find out Tuesday evening whether he can muster a majority in the House of Commons to support his Brexit deal.

Even if he does, it may not be enough to get the agreement through Parliament by his October 31 deadline.

Having twice been denied a vote on whether lawmakers support his deal, Johnson has introduced the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which would implement the deal in law, and plans to push it through Parliament at a breakneck pace.

His moment of truth will come on Tuesday evening in London, with what’s known as the Second Reading vote - on whether Parliament agrees with the general principles of the bill.

He needs to persuade 61 Members of Parliament to back his deal. It looks like he has 64, based on what lawmakers have said over the last week. Here’s our tally of how many look like they will support his deal: 

Probable Supporters


Gaukeward Squad 17

Spartans 28

Labour 14

Independents 4

Others 1

However, his plan to fast-track the legislation through Parliament is more controversial. Even lawmakers who support his deal have expressed concern about the lack of time it provides for proper scrutiny. If he doesn’t pass that hurdle, he could still deliver Brexit - just not in time for his deadline.

Based on what MPs have said over the last few days, it looks like Johnson will get closer to a majority than he did on Saturday - where he lost by 322 to 306 - but still not make it over the line.

Now for the health warning. This analysis is necessarily imprecise: MPs can and do change their minds. Some are keeping their cards close to their chest.

Here’s how the numbers break down:

Johnson’s Target: 320

Once non-voting MPs are accounted for, Johnson needs 320 MPs on his side to win any vote in the House of Commons.

May’s Baseline: 259

The last time Theresa May tried to get her deal through, in March, she had the support of 279 Conservatives. They are mostly likely to back a Johnson deal too, but there are some problems.

Johnson expelled a group of MPs from the party in September after they backed legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit. They were joined by Amber Rudd, who resigned in sympathy. Also out of the party is Nick Boles, who quit the Conservatives earlier this year in frustration at the Brexit deadlock.

As a result there are question marks against 19 former Tories who previously backed May’s deal. On top of that number, one deal-backing Conservative, Chris Davies, lost his seat to a Liberal Democrat in a recall election.

That leaves Johnson 61 votes short. Where can he go?

‘Gaukeward Squad’: 19

The expelled Tories, who take their name from former Justice Secretary David Gauke, are temperamentally loyalists - some had never voted against their party before September. Many of them are looking for a way back in - including Gauke.

In Saturday’s vote, seven of the Gaukeward Squad went against Johnson, but almost all made it clear they were ready to back his deal. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond still seems uncertain, but Johnson seems to have the vast bulk with him.

Democratic Unionist Party: 10

Johnson worked hard to try to keep Northern Ireland’s DUP engaged, but they have come out firmly against the new deal. They have deep reservations about anything that creates any kind of border between Britain and Northern Ireland and want a stronger consent mechanism that hands a greater say to the regional assembly.

They seem to have failed in their efforts to persuade Tories to vote against the deal, but on Saturday, they inflicted defeat on Johnson by voting against him, and they look ready to do it again.

The Spartans: 28

The self-titled “Spartans” are Conservative MPs who refused to vote for May’s deal. They chose their name to recall the fearsome Ancient Greek warriors who held off a numerically superior Persian force at the Battle of Thermopylae.

When Johnson became prime minister, the Spartans were adamant they opposed anything but the most minimal Brexit agreement. But in recent weeks they have begun to see the virtues of compromise. This is the result of the Benn Act, legislation that aims to prevent the UK leaving on Oct. 31 unless Johnson has reached a deal. It’s made the Spartans fear losing Brexit altogether.

On Saturday, Johnson had the support of all of the Spartans, with their leader Steve Baker offering MPs assurances of their good intentions in an effort to boost support for Johnson. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will all vote for his deal, but the prime minister should be reasonably confident he has their support as long as he doesn’t let his deal get rewritten.

Labour: 31

May pinned her hopes on winning the support of a significant minority of MPs from the opposition Labour Party who believe the 2016 referendum result must be honored. She struggled to get more than five to vote with her, but 15 who didn’t back her last time joined some who did in signing a letter this month urging the EU to do a deal. That might imply a commitment to vote for such an agreement.

Against that is the fear of retribution from their party if they do so. Leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team sense that defeating Johnson’s deal is a key step on their route to beating him at an election. Others in the party see defeating a deal as essential to securing another referendum.

A law unto herself is Kate Hoey, a fierce supporter of Brexit but also an MP with Northern Irish roots, who said she will oppose the deal. Since Johnson announced his plan, some Labour MPs who previously made pro-Brexit noises have started to come out of the woodwork, so we’ve increased the number of potential Labour votes by 10.

Saturday saw six Labour MPs voting with Johnson, and three more abstaining. He needs more, but at least three more have promised to support his deal.

Independents: 5

Four independent MPs backed May’s deal in March. A fifth, John Woodcock, might also be tempted. He voted with Johnson on Saturday. But Sylvia Hermon, who backed May’s deal, represents a Northern Irish seat and is opposed to Johnson’s deal.

Other MPs: 2

Two possible supporters defy categorisation. Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, who is stepping down at the next election, represents a seat that voted to leave the EU and has been critical of his party’s anti-Brexit stance. On Saturday he said he was against Johnson’s deal. In better news for the prime minister, his brother Jo, an opponent of Brexit, voted with him on Saturday.

The Joker

If it comes to a tie, Speaker John Bercow has a casting vote. It’s not clear how he would exercise it.

(Updates throughout reflecting upcoming Tuesday votes.)
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