Jim Fitzpatrick has been a Labour MP for 21 years, being first elected in the new dawn of 1997. He was a firefighter before he became an MP. He served as a government whip and a minister for most of the New Labour years.
Like most Labour MPs he is out of tune with the Jeremy Corbyn party, but he is no Blairite. He resigned from the Labour front bench in protest against Ed Miliband’s refusal to rule out support for punitive strikes on the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons. “I am opposed to military intervention in Syria, full stop,” he said.
He had just turned 65 and was planning to stand down at the next election when Theresa May surprised everyone by calling an election in 2017. He was one of the few MPs to vote against having an election, but he fought it anyway.
So when he spoke in the House of Commons on Friday and said that he was “talking myself into supporting the prime minister’s deal next Tuesday”, he did so as someone who does not expect to face his voters again.
You can read that two ways. Some have accused him of betraying the 66 per cent of his constituents who voted Remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. I disagree. I see Fitzpatrick as an elected representative who takes his responsibility to the country seriously, and who is free to express his views without having to second-guess the electoral consequences.
The significance of Fitzpatrick’s likely support for the prime minister’s Brexit deal is not that she is going to win the vote on Tuesday. My tally of MPs’ intentions suggests that, even if the five Labour MPs who have suggested they might vote with the government do so, and even if the 12 Conservative MPs who are listed as “Perhaps” on the Conservative Home website join them, Theresa May will still be 95 votes short of the total she needs.
Fitzpatrick matters because he set out so clearly what a lot of Labour MPs think, but so few of them feel able to say in public yet. He is not opposed to another general election, but he points out “our first problem will be drafting a united manifesto”. In any case, it is unlikely. It is so unlikely that I think there is more chance of the DUP switching its support straight from the Conservatives to Labour, putting Corbyn in No 10, if he promises what it wants.
Fitzpatrick is against another referendum. “The Labour manifesto in 2017, which my constituents voted for, said we respected the outcome of the referendum.” In which case, “at some point we need to recognise that the danger of no deal is still there and that the only real alternative on the table is the prime minister’s deal”.
His is a path many other Labour MPs could follow, although they seem to need to have the prime minister’s deal defeated first. Only then do I think they will face up to the limited options available to them.
So the choice for Labour MPs, if they want to avoid leaving the EU without a deal (and only Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer want to do that), is to try to force a new referendum or to accept the prime minister’s deal.
So far, the People’s Vote campaign estimates only 116 (out of 256) Labour MPs support another referendum. Most of the rest are frontbenchers, bound by the tortured formula of policy agreed at the party conference – that, if there cannot be an election, “Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”.
Another group support the “Norway Plus” option, of staying in the EU single market and customs union, which would be like staying in the EU without a say in its affairs. This is not a realistic possibility. No Tory prime minister could propose it and we have already established that the chance of a Labour prime minister is small.
So I would expect the “Norwegians” to gravitate towards a referendum, but in the end I doubt that Corbyn will lead his front benches there. In which case I would expect many more Labour MPs who do not want a referendum to come to the same conclusion as Fitzpatrick: that the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to support the prime minister’s deal. The only thing is that there may not be enough of them to give Theresa May a majority.
When people say there is no majority for any option in parliament, therefore MPs have to give the decision back to the people to break the deadlock, they overlook the fact that one of the options for which there is no majority is that of going back to the people in a referendum.
Something is going to have to give, and it is not yet clear what it is.