Tory MPs have saved Theresa May’s Brexit legislation – but not her Brexit

A compromise on customs with Tory rebels has smoothed the passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill. But the fight has merely been deferred til next month. 

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The trajectory for the EU Withdrawal Bill, which returns to the Commons tomorrow, is now clear: a meaningful vote, and then a meaningless one. Where last week it appeared that Theresa May could face as many as three defeats on key Lords amendments to the government's flagship Brexit legislation, now rebels will be lucky to inflict one.

Waheed Alli's amendment on the EEA has long been dead in the water – the numbers, shonky before the Labour leadership announced they would not back it, are simply unattainable. Now John Kerr's, on a customs union, has almost certainly been killed off too. Unity is the watchword: Oliver Letwin, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nicky Morgan have put their names to an amendment in lieu that instead calls for the government to negotiate a customs arrangement with the EU, rather than a customs union (the same wording as the party's general election manifesto). 

It will almost certainly avert a government defeat, which for the pro-EU mutineers is precisely the point. Rare are the occasions that they agree with Steve Baker, the Brexit minister dispatched to spin to journalists outside a meeting of the 1922 Committee this evening, on anything. But his dismissal of the argument for voting against the government – “This is not the bill to have discussions about trade policy, we've got a Trade Bill” – chimes with what would-be rebels have been saying publicly and privately in recent days. Now, they believe, is neither the time nor legislative place for a fight whose result would be a perhaps fatally destabilised prime minister. 

May – greeted with polite applause by MPs this evening – urged her party not to back the Lords amendments lest her "negotiating position will be undermined". The prime minister was talking about Brussels and the EU27 but the rebels have folded so as to strengthen her negotiating position with the Brexiteers within her own party in the medium term. But the reckoning is merely delayed. The real fight starts later, on a piece of legislation which both they and the government now admit is up for grabs. The rebels believe they will win the war. 

Baker nonetheless said the government was approaching tomorrow and Wednesday's votes with “considerable confidence”. MPs of all ideological hues emerged murmuring approval. Robert Buckland, the Remain-backing solicitor general who joined him in giving a briefing to lobby hacks to signal the Tories' newfound unity, issued a warning to any waverers: “We'll hang together, or we'll all hang separately.”

It remains to be seen whether the rebels are willing to hang together on the question of a meaningful vote on the final deal. If the Lords amendment doesn't pass, the choice for Tory MPs will be a stark but simple one: vote for whatever deal the government presents, however crummy or economically destructive, or vote for no deal at all. Power would be concentrated in the hands of Brexiteers, with no mechanism for moderation available to anyone else. As Ken Clarke pointed out today, the prime minister and her deal would be at the mercy of David Davis or Arlene Foster and whatever they were threatening, and she would have to acquiesce. Hardly hanging together. 

Despite this, the uneasily fraternal mood of compromise among MPs, and the mutineers' aversion to sparking a mutiny, looks like it could well deliver May a win on the meaningful vote too, despite a continued belief that the government's compromise doesn't go far enough. The mood music is very different to last week. But in peddling the line that the real Brexit policy bills are yet to come the government has effectively given the rebels licence to have another go, a proper go, at moderating Brexit next month. They are not out of the woods. Though Buckland was keen to stress the weakness of Labour's position, the government has gone better: it's decided not to have one. Soon it will feel the painful consequences of kicking the can down the road.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.