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20 June 2018updated 21 Jun 2018 9:42am

Have the Tory rebels just lost the war?

Theresa May has deferred another painful fight over Brexit, but the reputational damage sustained by pro-EU rebels in the row over the meaningful vote means she could well win it.

By Patrick Maguire

Frankie Valli’s Walk Like A Man might have been Theresa May’s top choice on Desert Island Discs, but an apter soundtrack to this phase of her premiership is a 1978 hit by Hot Chocolate: Everyone’s A Winner.

As has happened several times over the past fortnight, the prime minister and her party have deferred a painful fight by essentially agreeing to have one later: the EU Withdrawal Bill has passed more or less intact as far as Brexiteers are concerned, and parliament will get something resembling the meaningful vote the rebels wanted on the final deal. 

Both Dominic Grieve and Jacob Rees-Mogg are claiming victory, as is every individual Tory WhatsApp group. As long as that’s the case, May’s challenge isn’t over – making real progress on Brexit will inevitably mean disappointing one of them.

In this sense, today’s result is a narrow, Pyrrhic victory for all involved. Everyone might be a winner tonight, but the prize amounts to very little. The Withdrawal Bill has assumed near-Biblical significance for Brexiteers, and will sign our exit from the EU into law in a form that’s acceptable to Leavers. But Grieve, by any measure, has got what he wanted – despite having to compromise on a compromise on a compromise. MPs will have their meaningful vote.

More substantive fights on the shape of the eventual deal are also approaching, namely the Trade and Customs Bills. Pro-EU rebels – or at least their notional leaders – justified not rebelling on the single market and customs union amendments to the Withdrawal Bill by saying they were keeping their powder dry for those pieces of legislation. The results of these clashes could be bad news for both Eurosceptics and the government. 

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Six MPs voted against the government whip on today’s meaningful vote amendment despite the compromise buying off Grieve, its author. That suggests, on paper at least, that the pool of rebels who can be depended on the vote for some softening of Brexit when those bills come before the house has got a little bit bigger. 

One MP who did not join the rebels in the division lobby today but has in the past says the compromise illustrates the benefits of their being “quietly effective and restrained” operators. On the contrary, others think that they have been loudly ineffective and indisciplined. 

Six is a reasonably big number in the political context of a government with a working majority of 13 but it doesn’t answer the question of who the rebels actually are, and whether they have any claim to be a cohesive fighting force. That Grieve and other high-profile mutineers like Nicky Morgan didn’t rebel today suggests not. 

Again, on paper, the numbers are there in the Commons for more or less everything they want, a customs union chief among them. But it doesn’t follow that they’ll inevitably win. For some of the Tory MPs who make up the “silent majority” seeking a “sensible Brexit” that Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Damian Green talk about, today illustrates why the rebels probably won’t: all they’ve demonstrated is their ability to make a lot of noise and then fail to vote en bloc, even as a protest.

Theresa May has taken a big gamble in postponing the final confrontation on Brexit again. Every time she does, the potential pain of losing it increases. On today’s evidence, though, she has some cause for optimism. 

For Tory MPs, next week’s meeting of the European Council and the white paper on what exactly May wants the UK’s future relationship with Brussels to be will determine who wins. “That white paper has to be shit hot, and explain how she actually intends to achieve the things she’s been saying” one says, “or some of us might think ‘fuck it, I’m voting for the customs union and single market if that’s the best we’ve got.'”

That sentiment should hearten rebels but the problem is that another is growing in popularity – the feeling that they aren’t reliable enough to make doing so worth it. They will have few opportunities to dispel it.