The numbers will be tight today. As I say in The Sun this morning, one minister believes that things are so close that there is a real chance that the Speaker John Bercow may end up having to break a tied vote. Though if the Letwin amendment passes, the vote this afternoon will lose some of its clarity.
It is remarkable that Boris Johnson is so close to getting a majority for his deal despite having lost the support of the DUP. Cabinet Ministers are increasingly optimistic that the government might just pull this off.
When Cabinet met yesterday afternoon, the Chief Whip Spencer ‘scrupulously avoided giving any numbers’, according to one of those present. But the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who did the numbers for Boris’s leadership bid, said that the government couldn’t afford to lose more than two or three of the ERG. But with them on board, victory was possible.
Without the DUP’s support, which is gone despite Boris Johnson’s belief that they can still be won round, the government will need the backing of 14 MPs who were elected as Labour in 2017. Cabinet opinion is split on whether they can get this number. One Cabinet Minister intimately involved in the bid to woo Labour MPs thinks they are going to get there. ‘We’re going to win’, this Secretary of State declares.
Others in Cabinet are more sceptical, though. One tells me ‘I believe it when I see it’, pointing out that Theresa May thought she would do better with Labour MPs on every meaningful vote than she actually did. This minister’s view: ‘we’re going to fall just short’.
Another group whose position is key is the 21 MPs who lost the Tory whip for voting for the Benn Act, which forces the government to ask for a Brexit extension if MPs don’t back this deal. Downing Street calculate that 15 of this group will vote for the deal.
Three Cabinet Ministers—Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove and Robert Buckland—met with a chunk of the 21 on Thursday afternoon. One of those present tells me, ‘It wasn’t great. Hammond was particularly difficult’. This source says that watching Hammond he thought that the former Chancellor ‘can’t see past that hatred’ he has for Boris Johnson.
I suspect that most of the 21 will back the government, most of them want a deal and many of them want the whip back so they can stand at the next election. As one senior Cabinet Minister tells me ‘Voting for us tomorrow is the way back in. We need to be able to count on them for the WAB’.
Then, there are those so called ‘Spartans’—the Tory Brexiteers who wouldn’t vote for May’s deal even at the third time of asking. Downing Street is confident that pretty much all of them will back the deal. I understand that David Trimble, the former Northern Ireland First Minister who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Good Friday Agreement, will attend this morning’s meeting of the Brexiteer European Research Group to explain why the deal is in line with the Good Friday Agreement contrary to what the DUP say.
If the ERG do back the deal en masse, then the votes this afternoon are going to be remarkably tight.