Tory rebellion back on after MPs reject May’s Brexit amendment
Fresh showdown looms after wording on ‘meaningful vote’ deemed ‘unacceptable’
Former UK attorney general Dominic Grieve speaking in a debate on Brexit legislation in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
British prime minister Theresa May is heading for a fresh showdown with Conservative rebels next week after they rejected a government-drafted amendment to the EU withdrawal bill.
The former minister Anna Soubry said she and her colleagues felt “badly let down” after they believed they had reached an agreement with the government – only to find the text had been redrafted at the last minute.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve held negotiations with the government over the precise wording of the amendment, which was aimed at making it more difficult for Britain to crash out of the EU without MPs being given a meaningful vote.
But he said the final version, which was tabled by the government at the last moment on Thursday evening, was “unacceptable”.
Rebel peers now plan to table Mr Grieve’s original text when the bill goes back to the House of Lords on Monday – giving MPs a second chance to debate it when it is bounced back to the Commons on Wednesday, in the arcane parliamentary process known as “ping pong”.
More than a dozen Tory rebels believed they had been given a personal assurance by the prime minister, in a face-to-face meeting on Tuesday, that their concerns about the risk of a no-deal Brexit would be addressed.
But instead of Mr Grieve’s clause 5C, which would have allowed MPs to “direct” the government in the event of no deal, the new amendment just promised a debate on a motion “in neutral terms”.
Mr Grieve, who tabled the original amendment, said this new draft was “unacceptable”, because this phrase meant it would impossible for MPs to amend the government’s proposals – and force ministers to change their minds.
“It is unacceptable. At the end of the process something was inexplicably changed, which had not been agreed. The government has made the motion unamendable, contrary to the usual methods of the House of Commons and therefore it cannot be accepted,” he said.
Brexiteers denied that they had demanded the last-minute change to the bill, insisting it was the government that was determined not to allow MPs to tie ministers’ hands at a crucial phase in the process of extricating Britain from the EU.
Some leavers are keen for Mr Grieve and his colleagues to be confronted – and, they believe, defeated – to prevent the government using the tricky parliamentary arithmetic as an excuse for sliding towards an ever-softer Brexit.
The row is the latest challenge for Ms May as she seeks to balance the conflicting demands of the two wings of her warring party , in a hung parliament that makes winning every vote challenging.
Mr Grieve’s amendment represented the only defeat for the government as the bill went through the House of Commons in December. A cross-party group of peers, led by the former Tory cabinet minister Lord Hailsham, then sought to strengthen it as the legislation went through the House of Lords.
Ms May bought off a looming rebellion in the Commons on Tuesday by holding a face-to-face meeting with MPs in her Westminster office in the closing moments of a fraught debate.
They believed they had been offered talks on a new clause c; but Ms May subsequently insisted “the government’s hand in the negotiations cannot be tied by parliament”, adding that she would not countenance any amendment that would allow parliament to “overturn the will of the British people”.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union insisted: “We have listened to those across the House who called for the ability to express their views, in the unlikely event that our preferred scenario did not come to pass.”
He added that the government amendment “ensures that in all circumstances parliament can hold government to account, while also allowing government to deliver on the will of the British people as expressed in the referendum.
“But this remains hypothetical and the government is confident we will agree a good deal with the EU which parliament will support.”
Ms Soubry, who rejected the prime minister’s assurances and voted against the government earlier this week – unlike more than a dozen of her colleagues – suggested the amendment had been tabled “without consultation”, after the rebels believed they had a deal.
She told the BBC: “The appalling thing is that no one actually spoke to Dominic Grieve before they tabled that amendment at 5pm. I think that is unforgivable, you don’t behave like this, I’m very, very disappointed.”
Another rebel, Sarah Wollaston, said she and her allies would now need to “amend the ‘unamendable’”.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said: “The government’s amendment is simply not good enough. Theresa May has gone back on her word and offered an amendment that takes the meaning out of the meaningful vote. Parliament cannot – and should not – accept it.”
The issue was at the heart of a knife-edge vote on Tuesday, which saw more than a dozen MPs, including Nicky Morgan and Ed Vaizey, called into the prime minister’s office to be given last-minute reassurances their concerns would be addressed.
Some Conservative MPs are sceptical about the need for the Grieve amendment. Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, told Sky News he believed it was unnecessary, because if MPs voted against the Brexit deal the government would be likely to fall.
“I think we’re going to get a meaningful vote anyway,” Mr Tugendhat said. “The meaningful vote is going to be either the government’s deal is accepted, in which case that’s the meaningful vote accepted. Or it isn’t accepted. In which case, frankly, there’s going to be a new government.”
However, Ms Grieve and his backers – including Mr Starmer – believe they need to ensure there will be a formal process in place.
The prime minister is trying to press ahead with the legislation needed to enact Brexit but, in a hung parliament, she must strike a delicate balance between rebels on both wings of her parliamentary party.
Two more contentious bills – on trade and customs – are set to be debated before parliament breaks off for its summer recess, and pro-EU rebels are poised for a series of fresh confrontations, including over membership of the customs union. – Guardian