Astonishingly, the remainers have missed their best chance to hinder the Brexit process by failing to seriously oppose the motion put down by Theresa May that a General Election be held on 8 June. The motion was passed on 19 April 201`7 by 522 votes to 13.
This is an extraordinary result on the face of it. What is even more astonishing is the fact that the remainers could have defeated the motion quite easily. All they had to do was muster 217 votes or abstentions to overthrow the motion for an early election. Indeed, they could have done it simply by getting 217 MPs to abstain. The Labour Party, with 229 MPs, could have managed the matter on their own, as could a coalition of, say, two thirds of Labour MPs, the Scots Nat MPs and the LibDem MPs voting against or abstaining.
Let me divert for a moment to explain the status of abstentions in this context. In this vote an abstention has the same value as a vote against. This is because it is the total number of MPs who vote for the motion that matters, not the percentage of those who actually vote for or against a motion.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act two thirds of the 650 member House of Commons have to vote for a motion proposing an early election. Two thirds of 650 is 434. Hence one vote against or one abstention can make a difference. If 433 MPs vote for the motion with, say, only 100 voting against but with 117 abstaining, the motion fails because it is one short of 434.
Even without any party opposing the motion a substantial number of MPs did not vote for it. Only 13 MPs may have voted against the motion but 115 abstained. This figure of 115 is arrived at as follows:
522 voted for the motion
13 voted against the motion
Therefore 115 MPs are unaccounted for after deducting those who voted. Six of these are:
The Speaker (who doesn’t vote unless there is a tie), Eric Kaufman (deceased, and his constituency was awaiting a by election), and 4 Sinn Fein MPs (who don’t take their seats and consequently don’t vote.)
That leaves 109 other wilful or accidental abstainers.
As 115 votes were either not used or used to vote against, it would only have required another 102 to either abstain or vote against the motion to stop the attempt to have a general election on 8 June. Had the various remainer Party leaders in the Commons put their weight behind a vote against. the motion it is probable that the motion would have been defeated.
Alternatively, if remain MPs of all parties had come together they might well have defeated the motion.
The fact that the remainer MPs failed to defeat the motion when it was well within their grasp to do so, or indeed to make any public noise about doing so, suggests that they were more afraid of losing their seats than they are motivated to carry on the battle against Brexit. Ironically, I suspect that was a false fear for many remainer MPs because they represent constituencies which voted to remain.
As far as the party leaders are concerned, voting against the motion could have been represented as reasonable both because Theresa May had said she would not call an election as it would be destabilising and on the grounds that this Parliament is only two years old and the clear intention of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was to stop PMs calling elections to suit themselves and their party rather than the national interest.
If the remainer MPs had gathered enough votes and abstentions to defeat the motion it would have placed Theresa May in a very awkward position personally and removed from her the possibility of using a larger majority after an early General Election to drive through Brexit. It is indicative of a lack of commitment by remainers to their cause when it involves any danger or sacrifice. That is very useful to know. If they have looked gift horse in the mouth because they did not fancy the state of its teeth once they are very likely to do it again when the pressure is on.
As historians look back at the remainers ‘ failure to keep Theresa May locked in the position she was in before the motion was passed – stuck with a small majority and a General Election coming in 2019 just as the Brexit negotiations and the UK’s departure are due to come to a head – they will surely shake their heads in astonishment . No wonder for it is truly bewildering that there was no attempt by one or more of the Westminster parties which support the remainer cause to defeat the motion for an early General Election, thereby potentially greatly strengthening Theresa May and her government’s position.