On Brexit, Theresa May’s delay tactics are running out of road

Pro-EU Tory rebels were bought off with the promise of compromise on a meaningful vote but the government has merely deferred a painful fight. 

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The government has won its latest battle over Brexit legislation, but have Conservative MPs pushing for a soft Brexit won the war? After potential rebels were bought off with last-minute concessions by Theresa May, the Commons rejected a Lords amendment that would have given MPs a meaningful vote on the final deal by a comfortable margin of 324 votes to 298. 

It's clear the rebels had the numbers. Only five Labour MPs voted with the government, and 14 Conservative MPs, more than enough to cancel them out, met the prime minister in the minutes before voting started on other amendments to the bill to hammer out a compromise that will see new meaningful vote amendments tabled in the upper house. 

Rebels believe the government has agreed to proposals floated by Dominic Grieve in the Commons earlier today, which would effectively give MPs a veto over the Brexit deal if none is agreed by 30 November, and promised meaningful dialogue on a proposal to allow MPs to dictate the government's Brexit strategy if there were no deal by 15 February. Whatever the specifics of the compromise, MPs will end up with a substantive input into the government’s direction of travel on Brexit. That makes leaving with no-deal even unlikelier than it was previously.

Brexiteers, however, believe there is no question MPs will be allowed to set negotiating strategy with the EU after the February deadline, and the government has not yet confirmed it will actually concede on anything, only that further discussions will take place. So while the promise of concessions has been made and is enough to stave off defeat for this week, whether the amendments the government tables in the Lords will be enough to placate Remainer rebels remains to be seen. 

Ultimately, if the government does try and pull a fast one on the rebels, then peers can always revive Grieve's original proposals, which past votes suggest would definitely pass by a clear majority in the upper house. The rebels have the numbers in the Commons and the guarantee of success in the Lords. But if the government really conceded to the rebels, the Brexiteers will be very angry indeed.

As it did yesterday by fudging a new amendment on customs, the government has merely averted and deferred, rather than resolved, a potentially very destructive fight. 

David Cameron's habit of solving knotty issues at the latest possible moment earned him the mantle of the "essay crisis" prime minister. On Brexit, his successor has developed a knack of leaving it to the latest possible moment to not solve them, or at the very best create the illusion of having done so. The problem with kicking the can down the road, however, is that eventually you run out of road. With a new showdown in the Lords approaching – and a bitter fight over customs to come next month – May is far from out of the woods. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.