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  1. Politics
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5 June 2018

It’s not just Theresa May fearing a Conservative rebellion in next week’s Brexit votes

If the Tory rebels exceed the Conservative-DUP majority, further scrutiny will be put on Labour’s official Brexit position.

By Stephen Bush

Beef is on the menu in parliament next week: on 12 June, the EU Withdrawal Bill will return to the House of Commons from the House of Lords, with the government looking to reverse the 15 defeats it suffered in the Upper House.

Conservative rebels tell the Times’s Sam Coates that they are confident of defeating the government on at least some of the votes and that they could inflict as many as seven amendments on Downing Street. The big ticket items in terms of the government’s vulnerability are the meaningful vote on the deal and the future customs relationship with the European Union after we leave.

Theresa May has three problems: one of which she inherited from Nick Clegg, the other two of her own making. Thanks to Clegg and the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, she can’t use the threat of an early election to bully Tory dissidents into line. That was the clear implication of the Act as written and it was underlined twice by David Cameron when he was defeated, first over whether to join the Syrian Civil War and then over tax credit cuts, and both times the government carried on as if nothing had happened. Conservative members know full well that the decision to wound, rather than kill, the government is in their hands rather than anyone else’s.

The PM has exacerbated that problem with two of her own making. The first, obviously, is blowing a 20-point lead to end up with no parliamentary majority at all. The second is moving Gavin Williamson from the Whips’ Office and replacing him with Julian Smith. Williamson has done very little to improve his reputation as Defence Secretary but his replacement has done a good job of making Williamson look like an accomplished Chief Whip. Even Tory MPs with very little time for Williamson think that he was better at cajoling rebels into line than Smith, who they feel has only one gear: aggression.

Next week’s votes are a headache for Jeremy Corbyn, too.

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They could represent the proof point for one of the arguments that Team Corbyn makes for its Brexit policy: that Conservative Remainers are willing to write moving pieces about how awful the government’s strategy is, but they don’t back up their words with parliamentary votes. But equally, if the number of Conservative rebels regularly exceeds the combined Tory-DUP majority that will put further scrutiny on Labour’s official position.

Whether by accident, design or a bit of both, Labour have, for the moment, alighted on a policy that reconciles its leader’s Euroscepticism, the divisions within Labour’s electoral coalition and its parliamentary party, and its strategic interest in defeating the government whenever possible. The government’s weakness is an opportunity for Labour; but a situation in which the Opposition has the opportunity to shape Brexit, and not merely make life difficult for Theresa May, is a lot more risky.

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