Theresa May’s latest Brexit reprieve lasted all of two days. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister managed to head off defeat on an amendment to her flagship Brexit legislation, which would have given MPs a meaningful vote on the eventual deal, by promising a compromise to Tory rebels. Crisis was averted and both Leavers and Remainers claimed victory.
That situation was clearly untenable and posed an inevitable question: who is the government going to disappoint? Now we have an answer: the pro-EU rebels on its own benches.
As changes to the EU Withdrawal Bill proposed by peers were debated by the Commons on Tuesday, it was clear that mutineers had the numbers to defeat the government on the meaningful vote amendment passed by the Lords and backed by Labour, which would have given parliament the right to set the government’s negotiating strategy in the event that there was no deal by March 2019 or MPs rejected it outright before then.
Unsurprisingly, this was anathema to both Brexiteers and the government, who also refused to back a last-ditch compromise amendment tabled by Dominic Grieve, the de facto leader of the mutineers, which would have effectively given MPs a veto over the Brexit deal if none was agreed by 30 November, and allowed them to dictate the government’s negotiating strategy if there were no deal by 15 February.
May still managed to avert defeat by assuring more than a dozen would-be rebels at the eleventh hour that she would address their concerns and table a new amendment to that effect when the bill “ponged” back to the Lords next week. Grieve and his colleagues assumed that this would essentially mean the Prime Minister conceding on the bulk of his compromise amendment and it appeared that they would be satisfied as late as this afternoon.
The Prime Minister, however, has done no such thing. Instead of the meaningful vote the rebels wanted, May has proposed giving MPs a meaningless one. The government’s new Lords amendment states that MPs will be able to vote on having “considered” an unamendable motion should there be no Brexit deal by next February. The Commons would have no ability to direct the government.
Brexiteers such as Iain Duncan Smith are predictably happy: they insist that Grieve should be happy with the compromise, given that it offers MPs some say but will not stop Brexit. Equally predictably, Grieve is not. “It is unacceptable”, he said. “At the end of the process something was inexplicably changed, which had not been agreed. The government has made the motion unamendable, contrary to the usual methods of the House of Commons and therefore it cannot be accepted.”
Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, has also said the non-compromise is unacceptable, tipping the parliamentary arithmetic in the mutineers’ favour. May now has to confront the fight she clumsily deferred on Tuesday night. The rebels will re-table Grieve’s amendment in the Lords, where it will inevitably pass before returning to the Commons next Wednesday. Only this time, having squandered already scant goodwill among the rebels, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the government will lose.
The best hope for Downing Street and the Brexiteers now is that enough wavering rebels beyond the hard core of Grieve, Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke and Sarah Wollaston follow the logic of Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee who has rebelled on previous amendments to the Withdrawal Bill. Tugendhat told Sky News earlier that any vote on the Brexit deal would by its very nature be meaningful as defeat would result in the collapse of the government.
“I think we’re going to get a meaningful vote anyway,” he said.” The meaningful vote is going to be either the government’s deal is accepted, in which case that’s the meaningful vote to accept it, or it is not accepted, in which case, frankly, there’s going to be a new government.” Both the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and Grieve disagree with his thinking. If it convinces half a dozen would-be rebels to vote with the government next week, however, May could yet snatch another unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat.