Theresa May suffers Commons defeat over Brexit plan B by 45 votes
Some Brexiteers wanted to vote against the government but agreed to abstain
Minutes before the end of Thursday’s Brexit debate, Conservative Remainer Anna Soubry was leaning across the back of the front bench in energetic conversation with Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay.
Moments later, they left the chamber together to negotiate the terms for her to withdraw an amendment that would have obliged the government to publish civil service advice about the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
Under a curiosity of parliamentary procedure, if Ms Soubry’s amendment was passed, the government’s main Brexit motion would have fallen without being put to a vote. By withdrawing it, she left the government open to a defeat and exposed the hardline Conservative Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) as the authors of it.
Mr Barclay opened the debate four hours earlier with an attempt to reassure the Brexiteers about the meaning of the motion endorsing the approach to Brexit voted for on January 29th. That day, MPs backed Graham Brady’s amendment offering support for Theresa May’s Brexit deal on condition that the Northern Ireland backstop would be replaced by alternative arrangements to ensure that the Border remains open.
But they also voted for a non-binding amendment tabled by Conservative Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey which opposed a no-deal Brexit. Former Brexit secretary David Davis wanted an assurance that Britain would leave the EU on March 29th, deal or no deal.
“I am very happy to give . . . that assurance. The cabinet’s position on no deal has been agreed,” Mr Barclay said.
“The Prime Minister has repeated her commitment to the timescale on numerous occasions, including again in her statement this week.”
The Brexit secretary’s statement angered Remainers on both sides of the house and former Conservative chancellor Kenneth Clarke said the government was pandering to the ERG, which he described as “a kind of breakaway party within a party — a bit like Momentum, really — with a leader and a chief whip”.
Labour view on backstop
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said the prime minister had failed to secure any of the changes to the Northern Ireland backstop she was seeking. In answer to a question from North Down Independent MP Sylvia Hermon, Sir Keir confirmed that Labour now accepted and supported the backstop.
“Although we have concerns about the backstop, we do accept that there must be a backstop, it is inevitable and that, therefore, notwithstanding those concerns, we support a backstop. That is very important,” he said.
Former Conservative minister Oliver Letwin described the exchanges between the government and Brexiteer backbenchers as “fascinating and rather horrifying” driving him to the conclusion that the prime minister was prepared to leave the EU without a deal.
Mr Letwin said the only way to prevent this “terrifying” course was for MPs on February 27th to back an amendment that would allow them to take control of the Brexit process away from the government.
“Mostly, our country has operated on the principle that its great work is done by governments, and that we in this House have the extraordinary privilege of observing, informing, scrutinising and checking, but do not have to take the ultimate responsibility for those crucial decisions that those of us who have served in Cabinets and in National Security Councils have, from time to time, had to take about what this country does. On 27 and 28 February, if we come to debate that Bill, and in succeeding weeks and months, as we have to legislate for the policy of this country in relation to the EU, all of us in this House will suddenly have to take the awesome responsibility of playing our part in trying to find a way through that enables our fellow citizens to have a secure and prosperous future,” he said.
While the debate was going on in the chamber, Conservative Brexiteers in the ERG were meeting to agree their strategy. Some wanted to vote against the government but they agreed to abstain and the government was defeated by 45 votes.
The prime minister left the chamber before the vote was announced and when Jeremy Corbyn taunted the Brexit secretary asking him if he would like to respond to the result, Mr Barclay simply shook his head.