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15 January 2019

John Bercow all but guarantees a humiliating defeat for Theresa May

The Speaker’s choice of amendments to the meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement are profoundly unhelpful for the government.

By Patrick Maguire

John Bercow continues to make life as difficult as possible for Theresa May. The Speaker has selected four out of a possible six amendments to this evening’s Commons vote on the withdrawal agreement, none of them helpful to the Prime Minister.

Downing Street had signalled it could support three potential changes to the motion approving the divorce deal and political declaration on the UK’s future relationship with the EU that MPs will vote on (and defeat) tonight.

In doing so, it had hoped to attract support from two constituencies of swing voters and limit the scale of the inevitable defeat. Two amendments from Tory backbenchers aimed to dilute the powers of the Northern Irish backstop, in order to win over wavering Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP.

Hugo Swire had tabled an amendment that would have provided a parliamentary veto over the UK’s entry into the backstop, while Andrew Murrison had proposed a hard deadline of 2021 for its expiry. With the withdrawal agreement signed off by the EU27, neither could have changed the binding legal text of the treaty, but it had been hoped that, if successful, both could impress upon Brussels the need for change on the backstop.

Bercow has selected neither, and in doing so has not given Tory Brexiteers a ladder to climb down. Nor did he select an amendment from the Labour MPs John Mann, Caroline Flint and Lisa Nandy on protecting workers’ rights, vaunted over the weekend as a means for Downing Street to win opposition votes. For May, the literal intention of these three amendments as their authors saw them was less important than the desired political outcome of accepting them as changes to the main motion MPs will vote on: a less gruesome headline result for the government. 

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Instead, MPs will vote on four amendments that are unlikely to shift that final – and almost certainly comically lopsided – result very much at all. Nor will any be accepted by the government, which guarantees a clean yes-no vote on the deal alone. The first, from the Labour leadership, rejects the deal because it does not meet Labour’s six tests and calls for the Prime Minister to pursue every possible option to avoid a no-deal scenario. The second, from the SNP, rejects the deal on the grounds it is opposed by the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales and calls for an Article 50 extension.

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While Bercow did select two amendments from backbench Tories that aim to make the UK’s withdrawal form the backstop easier, neither will be accepted by Downing Street. Edward Leigh’s – already rejected by Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General – asks the government to confirm it would withdraw from the backstop were it made permanent, while John Baron’s says the deal must only be approved if the UK is given the unilateral right to withdraw from the backstop.

While both could win support from some Tory Brexiteers, neither is likely to be good enough for the DUP and most rebels on the government benches – whose objective is still to kill the deal by a conclusive margin. The Speaker’s choices have made that job considerably easier.