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12 June 2018

As one Tory MP resigns from government, can May push her Brexit bill through parliament?

Remainer Phillip Lee stepped down ahead of today’s House of Commons vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill.

By Stephen Bush

No sooner do you resolve one crisis, than another begins: Downing Street had brokered a compromise over the customs union, with an amendment committing the government to seek “a customs arrangement as part of the framework for the future partnership” that has been signed by big-name backbenchers from across the Remain-Leave divide.

But that hard-won unity couldn’t even last the night: Phillip Lee, who supported Remain, has quit his ministerial post “so that I can better speak up for my constituents and country over how Brexit is currently being delivered”, adding on Twitter that he “cannot, in all good conscience, support how our country’s current exit from the EU looks set to be delivered”.

And Dominic Grieve, the most influential of the pro-European rebels, has brought forward his own amendment to the Withdrawal Bill to secure a meaningful vote and has announced he will vote for the Lords amendment if his amendment is voted down.

Grieve is widely respected on both sides of the House and pro-European Conservatives see him as someone who a) knows his oats and b) doesn’t start fights in an empty room. The chances that he will take enough Tory MPs with him on the meaningful vote are high. Lee has effectively declared his intention to vote with Grieve in his resignation statement.

The meaningful vote amendment is a much more, well, meaningful than that over the customs union, where the crunch point will come over the Trade Bill. As it stands, while the government has to give parliament a vote, Theresa May can set the terms of what that vote means: which means MPs would likely face a choice between May’s deal with the EU and no deal at all. A vote, yes. A meaningful one? Not at all.

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Whereas if either Grieve’s amendment or the Lords amendment is passed, parliament will be able to take an active rather than a passive role in the talks. Grieve’s amendment is particularly significant because it includes specific measures to prevent the Brexit ultras seizing control of Downing Street and then merely running down the Article 50 clock to achieve a no deal exit.

If Conservative Remainers allow the meaningful vote amendments to be defeated they will have passed up their only real chance to guarantee any control over the final EU-UK deal, while if Downing Street can avoid defeat today, Theresa May won’t be quite home and dry but she will at least be through the door and looking for a towel.

Adding to the difficulty faced by Conservative whips, the Sun and the Express have both gone for a healthy dose of jingoistic aggression on their front pages. The Sun claims the meaningful vote amendment is a choice between “Great Britain and Great Betrayal” while the Express goes for “Ignore The Will Of The People At Your Peril” as its splash.

The two factors that caused the government to be defeated over the meaningful vote back in December were firstly Grieve’s crucial role in explaining to nervous Conservatives why this was a fight worth picking, and secondly, anger at the Telegraph‘s infamous “mutineers” front page, which many Tory Remainers took as a not-particularly veiled threat.

Now that same pattern is repeating again and it may have the same result for the government as it seeks to avoid a further defeat on the terms of the meaningful vote.