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10 June 2018updated 11 Jun 2018 10:37am

The biggest risk for the government is defeat over a meaningful Brexit vote

Next week's amendment would give parliament the power to direct ministers if MPs reject the final deal. 

By Patrick Maguire

Is the government about to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Today’s Observer reports that would-be Tory rebels could yet fall into line ahead of next week’s votes on key amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, specifically those on membership of a customs union and the European Economic Area.


Leading mutineers have been rolling the pitch for such an eventuality for some time now. Ken Clarke, for instance, told the BBC’s Sunday Politics this morning that he was unsure whether enough of his colleagues would join him in defying the whip to defeat the government.


The former chancellor is making public what even the most bullish of his fellow rebels have admitted privately in recent days. Some believe that picking a fight now is neither wise nor necessary. There are several reasons for them thinking so.

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The first, perhaps counterintuitively, is their loyalty to Theresa May. Disappointment with the Prime Minister among the hard core of Tory Brexiteers is curdling into contempt. Clarke argued that the point of rebelling on the customs union and single market was “rescuing Theresa” from the hardliners. But what could yet turn out to be a critical mass of rebels think he has his reasoning back to front.


In such a febrile climate, they fear that winning the battle on contentious amendments could lose them the war – were May to be replaced by a doctrinaire Brexiteer. Unlike Clarke, they believe the best way to rescue – or at least protect – the Prime Minister from the destructive impulses of the European Reform Group in the immediate term is to make the passage of the bill as smooth as possible.


Doing so doesn’t mean conceding defeat entirely, however. The second reason some rebels will keep their powder dry is process-related: the how, not the why, of softening Brexit.


They believe that imminent votes on less totemic but arguably more substantive Brexit legislation, namely the trade and customs bills, will allow them to achieve their ultimate goal of moderating the eventual exit with a minimum of political toxicity for either themselves, May, or those on the Tory benches who have hitherto been put off rebelling by the scale and ferocity of negative reaction from within their party and the press.


Even those who will still vote for the Lords amendments on the Withdrawal Bill are unconvinced that they are the best way forward: both the rebels and the government are united in dismissing John Kerr’s customs union amendment as pretty weak beer that would not force the government to change its stance.


Avoiding those defeats does not mean success for the government, however. The third key Lords amendment that Tory rebels are not resiling from backing is the most significant: the meaningful vote on the final deal.


The politics here are less fraught. Parliament can unite around process in a way that it can’t around proposals that can be pegged to an ideology or one side of the Brexit debate. The Lords amendment on a meaningful vote isn’t trying to bind the executive to an Open Britain, or, indeed, ERG vision of Brexit.


Rather, it would give parliament the power to direct the government how to proceed in negotiations with the EU should it vote to reject the final deal. A compromise tabled by the government would see parliament have no control whatsoever – should the Commons reject the final deal, all ministers would have to do is explain their next steps to MPs within 28 days. In effect, its sole purpose is to make David Davis legally obliged to make a statement announcing we would leave without a deal.


That, understandably, is not an attractive proposition for sensible Tories. The weakness of the government’s concession – if it can even be called a concession – makes its defeat on the meaningful vote more likely. Crucially, Labour can corral even its gnarliest Eurosceptics to back amendments that ensure Tory defeat and do not propose anything ideological. Veteran Brexiteers Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell, for instance, backed Dominic Grieve’s meaningful vote amendment to the bill in December.


The consequences of that are far greater than defeat on the vague, aspirational amendments on the EEA would have ever been. Though not itself concerned with ideology, the meaningful vote amendment will give parliament the power to order a substantial change in the substance of Brexit should the final deal be unpalatable to a majority of MPs. It could well be. Though known unknowns remain – chief among them just how the EU27 would respond to any change in British direction – giving the Commons that power is by far the most profound result next week’s votes could have.