Theresa May avoided defeat over her Brexit plans by handing last minute concessions to MPs in a dramatic day in Parliament.
The Prime Minister’s bid to overturn a move to give Parliament the power to vote down any deal and take control of the Brexit process seemed set to fail, but MPs backed the Government 324 to 298.
The Government were fiercely opposed to the plan, with May telling MPs on Monday it would undermine her negotiating position with Brussels.
Justice Minister Phillip Lee resigned from his post at the start of the day in order to vote against the Government, prompting rumours that an embarrassing defeat for May was on the cards.
The Prime Minister held a last-gasp meeting with 14 potential rebels in her Commons office to offer concessions, while three more who were prepared to vote against the Government remained in the chamber.
If all 17 had voted against the Government, May would have lost.
It’s been reported May agreed to allow MPs to have a vote on the Government’s future negotiating stance if Parliament voted down the withdrawal agreement – or if no agreement had been reached by the end of November.
However, these votes would not be binding on the Government.
At the end of the three-hour debate on the issue, Solicitor General Robert Buckland promised to hold further talks with potential rebels – including former Attorney General Dominic Grieve – over the compromise.
Buckland’s initial attempts to promise Grieve and others the Government would listen to concerns were seemingly dismissed by the rebels.
But with less than 30 minutes to go until the debate wound up, a group of potential rebels – including Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Grieve – disappeared from the Chamber.
When they returned, Buckland told MPs: “Can I further reiterate the commitment I’ve given on behalf of the Government at the despatch box to further discuss the matter with [Grieve] and others.”
Tory MP Antoinette Sandbach got to her feet to say: “I do accept that the solicitor general has given an important concession today and I would have supported the Lords amendment had that concession not been made.”
One of the would-be rebels told HuffPost UK the rebellion was “delayed” but it “will return of we don’t get what we want in the Lords.”
When it came to the crunch, Lee abstained, saying that he had “trust” that the Prime Minister would honour her pledge.
The only Tories to vote against the Government were long-term anti-Brexiteers Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry.
After the vote, the Department for Exiting the EU issued a statement saying the Government would not allow MPs to box in UK negotiators.
A spokesman said: “On the meaningful vote we have agreed to look for a compromise when this goes back to the Lords.
“The Brexit Secretary has set out three tests that any new amendment has to meet – not undermining the negotiations, not changing the constitutional role of Parliament and Government in negotiating international treaties, and respecting the referendum result.
“We have not, and will not, agree to the House of Commons binding the Government’s hands in the negotiations.”
A House of Lords amendment gave Parliament the power to set the UK’s Brexit negotiating terms if MPs voted down the deal struck between the Government and Brussels.
Theresa May defeated this by offering concessions to Tory rebels, including that MPs would be able to have a vote on the Government’s next move if the deal is struck down – although this would not be binding.
Justice Minister Phillip Lee resigned from Government to vote in favour of the Lords plan.
From HuffPost UK’s Paul Waugh:
The legendary Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly once warned that football is not a matter of life and death. “I can assure you it is much, much more important than that,” he said. The Commons today was as deeply divided as the country over Brexit, its backers and opponents both talking in similarly sombre, apocalyptic tones about the high stakes.
Talk of mortality, real and political, was in the air. Anna Soubry revealed that one of her Remainer colleagues had received such a serious death threat that they were forced to attend a public meeting accompanied by six armed undercover police. Dr Philip Lee, who had quit his job as Justice Minister to support a ‘meaningful vote’ on a final EU deal, appeared to suggest Brexit was a death sentence for the UK’s human rights and prosperity.
Lee, whose resignation sparked a whips’ panic that the Government really could be defeated, pointed out that MPs had for years defied public opinion when it came to capital punishment. The former GP said the Commons should be mature enough to give Parliament the final say over the shape of Brexit. Lee explained his principled resignation by declaring: “In politics, as in the medical profession, trust and integrity are fundamental.”
Yet the good doctor looked slightly bewildered as his fellow Remainer rebels then hammered out a compromise. He wasn’t the only one, with MPs on all sides wondering what deal had been done. At first glance, the prescription looked unreadable. Closer inspection seemed to show that May had agreed to give the Commons a rolling veto over the final deal, pleasing Remainers. But it still looks like that veto expires on Exit Day next March, giving relief to Brexiteers. Both sides were happy that more ‘talks’ will follow.
The first rule of politics is to ‘know how to count’, and May knew the numbers today were too close for comfort. The second rule of politics should be ‘know what you want and how to get there’. Unfortunately, the 2016 EU referendum’s inherent tension remains. That binary vote meant the public told us what they didn’t want (the EU) but not what they did want (what kind of Brexit). Today was a temporary palliative for divisions in the Tory party, the Commons and the country. But it doesn’t look like a cure.
The House of Lords – who tabled the original amendment – could bring the plan back when the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Upper Chamber.
The Government will be under pressure from Tory remainers to carry through on her promise and put the changes into the Bill when it returns to the Lords
Theresa May will feel in a much stronger position having seen off the rebellion in her own party.
The next big fight will be over the UK’s future customs arrangement, set to be voted on when the Trade Bill comes back to the Commons next month.