Why did the Conservative rebels fold?

Pro-European Tories believe they have bagged a bigger prize than their detractors claim.

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Well, that lacked the force of the original, but sequels often do: at the last moment, Conservative rebels have fallen into line on the meaningful vote amendment, with even Dominic Grieve, the amendment’s author, voting against it. Just six Conservative MPs - one short of the number required to overcome the Tory-DUP majority, and five short of the number required to cancel out the four Labour rebels - ended up rebelling, well short of the advertised number.

What’s behind the climbdown? Well, the story begins in February 2017, during the passage of the Article 50 bill, when the government acquiesced to Keir Starmer’s demand for a parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s final deal. But the problem was that the government made no commitment to when that vote would take place or what the wording of it would be.

Obviously, there is a big difference between parliament being able to vote down the deal and send May back to Brussels to think again, or demanding specific red lines or concessions, and parliament facing a choice between May’s deal and Brexit with no deal. That’s no choice at all.

In December 2017, the government was defeated unexpectedly on the terms of the meaningful vote, which limited the government’s ability to present the vote on the deal so late in the process as to make it meaningless. But there was still an open question about the terms of the vote and what the government would present before Parliament. The fear of some Conservative backbenchers and the opposition parties was that they would be presented with a choice between May’s deal and a disastrous exit from the EU without any plan for what happened next.

What has changed today is that Commons clerks have ruled that anything put before Parliament on the Brexit issue will be amendable, which means that MPs will, if they so desire, be able to pass whatever they want in response to May’s final deal. Conservatives don’t need to rebel today because it turns out that the concession that Downing Street made in December was bigger than Downing Street thought.

But the bad news for Remainers is that the last-minute retreat by the Conservative rebels – after Labour had strained every sinew to get its own rebels into line – strengthens the argument being made by Labour’s own Brexiteers that there is no point relying on pro-European Tories to do the decent thing and that there is therefore no good reason for Labour to suffer political damage trying, and failing, to stop the Conservatives’ preferred flavour of Brexit.

Pro-European Tories might have secured a genuinely meaningful vote. But they’ve also increased the already high prospect that the vote will be meaningless.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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