Theresa May has avoided an embarrassing defeat on Brexit after a last-minute concession to Tory rebels on Parliament’s so-called ‘meaningful vote’.
The Government was set for a knife-edge vote in the Commons on Wednesday afternoon over whether Parliament should have the power to take-over the Brexit negotiations in the case of a ‘no-deal’ with Brussels.
Downing Street is against the plan, believing it would harm the UK’s bargaining position with the EU, and had put forward its own proposal saying that MPs should only be allowed to debate the Government’s actions if no agreement is reached – but not be able to dictate the terms of future talks.
Tory rebels, led by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, were frustrated with that proposal, but just minutes before MPs debated the issue Brexit Secretary David Davis offered a compromise.
In a statement, Davis confirmed it would be down to the Commons Speaker to decide whether any motion put forward by the Government on Brexit was amendable – meaning MPs would potentially have the power to dictate the Government’s policy if negotiations break down.
That clarification was enough for Grieve, who told MPs: “Having finally obtained, and I have to say with a little bit more difficulty than I would have wished, the obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place over the executive in black and white language I am prepared to accept the Government’s difficulty and support it.”
Grieve added he would still put his amendment to the vote, even though he would no longer be backing it.
His announcement was met by jeers from many on the Labour benches.
Grieve’s amendment was defeated 319 to 303, with six Tories defying party orders and backing the proposal: Heidi Allen, Ken Clarke, Phillip Lee, Antoinette Sandbach, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston.
Four Labour MPs supported the Government: Frank Field, Kate Hoey, John Mann and Graham Stringer.
Another four abstained; Gareth Snell, Jim Fitzpatrick, Kevin Barron and Caroline Flint.
Kelvin Hopkins, who is currently suspended from Labour, also abstained.
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Anti-Brexit MPs such as Dominic Grieve wanted Parliament to have the power to set the terms of the UK’s negotiations with the EU if no deal was struck with Brussels, or the agreement was voted down by the Commons.
The Government was opposed to this, as it feels this would weaken the UK’s negotiating position.
Many pro-Brexit MPs feared Remainers would use this procedure to force the UK to stay in the single market and customs union.
The Government’s compromise agreement would see ministers making statements to Parliament about the UK’s negotiating position if no deal is struck, or it looks unlikely a deal is going to be agreed by March 29 2019.
This motion is deemed to be “unamendable”, but just minutes before the debate started David Davis released a statement suggesting it could be amended by MPs if the Speaker allows it.
From HuffPost UK’s Paul Waugh:
Both David Davis and Dominic Grieve are former Army reservists. And as ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ Grieve marched his Remainer rebel troops back down the Brexit hill today, he and Davis were once again back in the same officers’ mess. And a mess is exactly what today’s compromise deal looks like.
The former Attorney General claimed he’d won a significant concession. Yes, he got Davis to agree to give Parliamentary time to a future Commons motion on whatever Brexit deal Theresa May brings back from Brussels. But as that pledge is made only in a Ministerial statement, rather than written into law, this is now an issue of political trust rather than legality.
And the key concession was made by Grieve last week, when he backed off his tougher plan to ‘direct’ May to go back to the negotiating table in the event of a ‘no deal’ or ‘bad deal’. Brexiteers see themselves as the real winners, pointing out the Remainers took the escape route offered by Davis and May because they simply lacked the numbers to defeat the Government. “We have the bill, they have words,” one said.
For the PM, the main upshot is that she’s once more put off the day when she has to decide who to choose between the different wings of her party. Yet it’s worth remembering that though Davis and Grieve share an Army background, it’s the Brexit Secretary who was attached to the SAS Regiment. ‘Who Dares, Wins’ is not a motto many Labour Remainer MPs are attaching to Grieve tonight.
With the amendment defeated, peers have backed down over the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, paving the way for it to become law.
The next big battle for the Government is on the Trade Bill, due to return to Parliament next month.
Anti-Brexiteers could use this bill to tie the UK into a customs union with the EU.