Tory rebels inflict embarrassing Brexit defeat on Theresa May

Amendment to EU Bill means government cannot implement deal with EU without MPs’ backing

The amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, proposed by former attorney general Dominic Grieve (above in Parliament today), prevents the British government from implementing any withdrawal deal with the EU without the backing of MPs through a new Act of parliament. Screengrab: PRU/AFP/Getty Images

The amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, proposed by former attorney general Dominic Grieve (above in Parliament today), prevents the British government from implementing any withdrawal deal with the EU without the backing of MPs through a new Act of parliament. Screengrab: PRU/AFP/Getty Images

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British prime minister Theresa May’s government has suffered its first parliamentary defeat in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill after an alliance of rebel Conservatives and opposition politicians pushed through an amendment demanding a meaningful vote by MPs on the final Brexit deal.

Opposition MPs cheered and waved their order papers when the result of the vote was announced, with 309 voting in favour and 305 against.

Twelve Conservatives joined opposition parties to support the amendment. The DUP’s 10 MPs voted with the government, along with Labour Brexiteers Frank Field and Kate Hoey.

The vote is an embarrassment for Ms May as she prepares to meet other EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday, where they are expected to conclude that there has been sufficient progress in Brexit talks to move on to the second phase of negotiations.

The amendment, proposed by former attorney general Dominic Grieve, prevents the government from implementing any withdrawal deal with the EU without the backing of MPs through a new Act of parliament. Mr Grieve said he had hoped to avoid having to vote against the government by persuading ministers to accept the changes he proposed.

“Brexit is full of risk and full of complexity – legal and otherwise – and the government are entitled to my support, wherever possible, to carry Brexit out as smoothly as they can and with the least impact on the wellbeing of the citizens of our country. That has been my aim throughout,” he said.

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Accusations of betrayal

Mr Grieve said that, as Wednesday’s debate approached, all rational argument began to evaporate as he and other faced accusations of betrayal from Eurosceptics who had voted against their party dozens of times.

“The purpose of the amendment, the nature of it, is entirely lost in a confrontation in which it is suggested that the underlying purpose is the sabotage of the will of the people, which it most manifestly is not. That is then followed by a hurling of public abuse; large numbers of people telling one that one is a traitor; and, I regret to say, some of one’s hon. and right hon. Friends saying slightly startling things,” he said.

The government sought to stave off the rebellion on its own benches in the hours before the debate, first with a statement from Brexit secretary David Davis promising a vote in parliament “as soon as possible” after an agreement with the EU is reached. At prime minister’s questions, Ms May warned MPs the amendment could threaten the “orderly and smooth” Brexit she sought.

Fresh concessions  

During the debate, justice secretary Dominic Raab offered fresh concessions, promising that secondary legislation to implement the Brexit deal would not come into force until after MPs had voted on the agreement. Later, after almost six hours of debate and with minutes to go before the vote, Mr Raab returned with an improved offer, a promise to amend the Bill to include the promise he had made earlier.

Mr Grieve rejected the minister’s attempt to buy off the rebels, saying it had come too late.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot treat the House in this fashion,” he said.

The debate was marked by heated exchanges between Conservatives, notably when Bernard Jenkin, a Eurosceptic who has voted against his party 95 times, said the rebels should not embarrass the prime minister on the eve of an EU summit.

“From you! From you!” shouted Anna Soubry, one of the rebels.

Brave face

The government sought to put a brave face on the defeat afterwards, with the Department for Exiting the European Union insisting it would not affect plans for Brexit.

“We are disappointed that parliament has voted for this amendment despite the strong assurances that we have set out. We are as clear as ever that this Bill, and the powers within it, are essential.

“This amendment does not prevent us from preparing our statute book for exit day. We will now determine whether further changes are needed to the Bill to ensure it fulfils its vital purpose,” the department said in a statement.

On Wednesday night Ms May sacked rebel MP Stephen Hammond from his role as Conservative Party vice-chairman.

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