Dominic Grieve’s Brexit amendment gives control back to MPs – but what will they do with it?

The Commons has won the right to dictate the government's course of action once the Brexit deal is voted down. 

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Have MPs taken back control of Brexit? That’s the conclusion many have reached this evening after an amendment by Tory MP Dominic Grieve gave the Commons the right to dictate the plan ministers will pursue once the Brexit deal is voted down. 

With the support of Labour and dozens of his Conservative colleagues, Grieve succeeded in changing the wording of the parliamentary motion dictating the procedure for next Tuesday’s meaningful vote so that MPs would be able to amend the back-up plan that ministers must bring before parliament within 21 days of losing the first meaningful vote.

It was the second significant procedural defeat suffered by the government in the space of an hour, with rebels including erstwhile May loyalists Damian Green and Michael Fallon, as well as Nick Boles, the former minister corralling colleagues to support a Norway-style Brexit as a fallback option once May’s deal fails. 

Rebels believe it will give MPs the power to prevent a no-deal Brexit and impose an alternative course of action – such as Boles’s Norway option or a permanent customs union – on the government. Tory Brexiteers have played down its significance, insisting nothing MPs would vote for in such a scenario would bind the government to do anything. 

Who is right? The truthful answer is neither. Though the success of Grieve’s amendment does narrow the odds of a no-deal Brexit, it remains the only legal certainty in the absence of another agreed solution between the UK and EU – of which there is no guarantee even if parliament does assert its will for an alternative. And while it is also true that there will be no legal force to a demand for, say, EEA membership or a new referendum by MPs, the government will find it difficult to ignore.

Some Tories believe that truth – that MPs now have recourse to make demands with significant political, if not legal, force once the deal is defeated – could induce more moderate Brexiteers on the backbenches to swing behind the withdrawal agreement and the prime minister next Tuesday for fear of handing control of the process to the latent cross-party majority in favour of softening Brexit or handing the decision back to the electorate with a view to stopping it entirely.

For most Brexiteers, however, the immediate imperative has not changed: the Withdrawal Agreement must be killed off for good and the only cast-iron process in all of this – the Article 50 clock – remains on their side. It has also given those MPs whose stated aim is avoiding no-deal a further disincentive to compromise.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.