Theresa May has got the “clean” Brexit bill she wanted. MPs have rejected the Lords amendments guaranteeing EU nationals’ rights and giving parliament a “meaningful vote” on the outcome of the withdrawal negotiations. They voted 335 to 287 against the former and 331 to 286 against the latter. Just two Tory MPs (Alex Chalk and Dr. Tania Mathias) voted in favour of EU nationals’ rights and none backed a “meaningful vote”.
Though David Davis made no formal concession to the rebels, he emphasised that he recognised Britain’s “moral responsibility” to the UK’s four million EU citizens. The Brexit secretary also reaffirmed his belief that a “swift agreement” with other European countries would be reached (though the government has squandered a chance to earn goodwill).
Davis gave no ground on a “meaningful vote” but acknowledged that parliament would have “its say” if the UK left the EU without a new trade agreement (opposition parties and backbenchers could table a motion). Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general and one of the Tory rebels (he abstained), denounced Davis’s stance as “deranged”. He said: “I’m concerned about getting an assurance from [David Davis] that, at the end of the process if there is no deal, which will be a very significant moment in this country’s history, parliament has an opportunity to debate and vote on that.
“Far from that being an obstruction of the process, I would expect that to be part of the normal constitutional process and the government to be seeking the endorsement of the House for that very significant act.
“And I do worry that [Davis], who I think personally may agree with me, has been prevented from saying that at the despatch box. But I’m afraid I’m not prepared to follow processes which appear to me to be, frankly, deranged. There is a clear way of doing thing and, if we follow them, we will come up with the right decision.”
The bill will now return to the Lords where it will be approved. Peers signalled in advance that they would not engage in parliamentary ping-pong – the siz e of the government’s victory means there is no purpose in doing so. After the bill receives Royal Assent, Theresa May will be empowered to trigger Article 50 at the end of this month. Until this afternoon, many Conservatives expected her to do so tomorrow, but after Nicola Sturgeon’s dramatic intervention this morning, May has wisely bided her time. Formally declaring Brexit tomorrow would have been a willfully provocative act after the SNP’s demand for a second referendum.