Brexit: May narrowly survives rebellion by pro-EU Conservatives

Rebels help inflict surprise defeat on Theresa May over medicines regulations

Theresa May has escaped defeat by just six votes on an amendment that would have kept Britain in a customs union with the European Union in the absence of another arrangement to keep trade frictionless. But the government suffered a surprise defeat when 12 pro-European Conservative rebels helped pass an amendment to keep Britain in the European medicines regulatory network.

The votes came at the end of a heated day at Westminster as pro-European Conservatives sought to exact revenge on the government for caving in to Brexiteer demands on Monday. The government negotiated openly with the rebels on the floor of the House of Commons, with treasury minister George Hollingbery offering to introduce a version of the customs union amendment in the Lords if the Commons version was withdrawn.

Former education secretary Nicky Morgan made clear that the rebels backing the amendment were partly motivated by anger at Conservative Brexiteers' efforts to wreck the prime minister's Chequers plan.

“The prime minister did the right thing by putting on the table a workable, practical proposal, captured at Chequers, which could be negotiated with the EU. Members of these benches chose to try to scupper that agreement and those proposals yesterday. Some of us tried to stop them. Sadly we failed,” she said.


“We give the prime minister space for those negotiations. But it is very clear that in this House there is a majority for a customs union to safeguard business and jobs and the financial interests of our constituents in the future.”

In the end, 12 Conservative rebels backed the amendment but four Labour MPs and one MP currently suspended by Labour voted with the government.

The return of Lee

The amendment on the European medicines regulatory network was tabled by Phillip Lee, who resigned as a justice minister last month in protest against the government's Brexit policy.

"This is vital because that is how we get our people and our NHS the medicines they need. It is also important for our pharmaceutical sector. The European medicines regulatory network partnership makes the process of accessing life-saving new medicines and moving medicines quick and easy. If we leave that partnership, the NHS would get ground-breaking new drugs like those for cancer, dementia and diabetes long after other parts of the world," he said.

Dr Lee’s amendment was passed by 305 votes to 301, with 12 Conservatives rebelling against the government to join the opposition in backing it.

May briefings

A government spokesperson said the amendment went beyond the commitment in last week's Brexit White Paper to participate in the European Medicines Agency and suggested it would seek to amend it in the Lords.

“As set out in the White Paper, the UK is seeking participation in the European Medicines Agency. We would look to be an active participant and this would involve making an appropriate financial contribution. We will now reflect on this amendment and seek to revisit in the Lords,” the spokesperson said.

As Conservative MPs reported unrest among party activists over the Chequers proposal, the prime minister spent much of Tuesday meeting representatives from Conservative associations to brief them on her plans. On Wednesday she will face questions in the House of Commons before attending a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times