The government narrowly survived defeat in the Commons last night, after the rebellions of three Labour MPs – Frank Field, Kate Hoey, and Graham Stringer – cancelled out the votes of 11 Conservative Remainers. Guto Bebb, a defence minister, quit the government to join the revolt.
That means that the European Research Group’s wrecking amendments passed into law after Downing Street accepted all four to see off the ERG’s own rebellion. Does that mean that Theresa May has signed away her own Brexit strategy? I explained why my reading of the amendments is that none of them actually prevent the Prime Minister from carrying out her negotiation strategy in this blog yesterday and a Downing Street source got in touch to say my reading was “essentially correct”, which means if I’m wrong, someone else is in a lot more trouble than I am, which is always comforting.
Nonetheless, that May’s compromise came so close to defeat by Conservative Remainers and the opposition at such short notice bodes ill for today’s big votes. Labour had very little run-up to their attempt to defeat the government last night and until late in the day, Conservative pro-Europeans were expecting to be voting with the government and against the ERG’s amendments. Yet Labour managed to deliver the votes of all but their most irreconcilable pro-Brexit backbenchers, and pro-European Conservatives managed to deliver 11 of their number. You wouldn’t bet on the government not being defeated on customs tonight.
What happens then? May will hope that she can shrug her shoulders, say that she tried, and that defeat will remind her own Brexit ultras that there aren’t enough votes in the House of Commons for a Brexit that is harder than hers and that forcing a crisis in the Conservative Party could mean no Brexit at all.
But it’s a measure of her lack of confidence that she will succeed in such an argument that she is now seeking to send MPs off for the summer recess early.
MPs can still plot away from Westminster, and as far as the opposition to the Chequers plan goes, sending parliamentarians back to their constituencies may simply make the problem worse. A constant diet of annoyed Tory activists may mean that a few more return in the autumn believing they have no option but to oppose May’s proposals. And it’s not just time in their constituencies that can make things worse – as one MP recently pointed out, listening to your activists complain is one thing, but being told by your mother that you will never be re-elected with that shower in charge really spooks an MP in a marginal seat.
But while Conservative MPs can plot, they can’t trigger a vote of confidence in May’s leadership without a parliament to vote in, and by the time MPs get back we will be that bit closer to the end of the Article 50 process and it will be that bit harder to get rid of May in a timely fashion. But again, it will be a tight vote and she could easily end up suffering the double blow of not only being seen to bring parliament to an early end in order to avoid plotting within her own party, but failing to bring parliament to an early end.
And all of this is of course merely the trailer for the bigger and scarier feature film: the challenge of passing any deal with the European Union through the House of Commons. Hold onto your hats.