MPs win right to final vote on Brexit
Theresa May suffered her first Brexit defeat in the Commons last night as Tory “mutineers” ensured that MPs must approve the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU.
The move prompted recriminations from Leave supporters who accused pro-Remain MPs of trying to delay or reverse the EU referendum result by creating the opportunity to reject the terms of withdrawal at a later date.
The rebels, led by the former attorney-general Dominic Grieve, won the vote by a majority of four despite a last-minute concession by ministers and heavy pressure on MPs from Tory whips to back the government. His amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill was supported by 309 MPs,with 305 opposing it.
Julian Smith, the chief whip, allegedly threatened legal action against Tory MPs who criticised the pressuring tactics used by the government. Anna Soubry, another leading rebel, said that one MP had been reduced to tears.
Mrs May’s hopes of avoiding humiliation were raised as wavering Tories were steered, in one case literally, into the government lobby to vote. A group of Labour Brexiteers desert ed the government, however, while enough Tory rebels held firm to inflict defeat on the prime minister. Toasting their victory, the former education secretary Nicky Morgan, a leading pro-EU Tory, tweeted: “Tonight parliament took control of the EU withdrawal process.”
Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, hit back. “Tonight, the Tory rebels have put a spring in Labour’s step, given them a taste of winning, guaranteed the party a weekend of bad press, undermined the PM and devalued her impact in Brussels,” she wrote. “They should be deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP, ever again.” One of the 11 Tory rebels, Stephen Hammond, was removed as a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party less than an hour after the vote.
Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, missed the vote as he was overseas. A source said that he was “slipped” —allowed to miss the vote having secured an agreement with Labour that one of their MPs would be absent through illness.
Mrs May must travel to today’s European Council in Brussels amid renewed questions over her authority to command her party through the next phases of Brexit talks. The vote comes three days after she was praised by both Tory flanks for securing a “divorce deal” with Brussels. Her initial attempt was derailed by the Democratic Unionist Party, on whose votes she depends for a Commons majority.
The prime minister, however, now faces the prospect of a second Commons defeat next week over her promise to fix in law a Brexit date of March 29, 2019. The move is strongly opposed by Mr Grieve and other Tory rebels.Mr Grieve invoked the Tories’ most illustrious leader as he defended his decision to press the amendment, which removes the power of ministers to leave the EU without a vote. He said ministers had failed to explain why it was necessary to retain this power after they promised that MPs would be given a “meaningful vote”. He said: “There’s a time for everybody to stand up and be counted. As Churchill said, he’s a good party man, he puts the party before himself and the country before his party.”
Mrs May, speaking before the six-hour debate and vote, said Mr Grieve’s amendment would prevent the “orderly and smooth exit from the EU that we wish to have”.
Mr Grieve, who said he had only once before voted against his party’s whip in 21 years in parliament, insisted that his amendment was not an attempt to sabotage the EU withdrawal. This was dismissed by Brexiteers who claimed that his design was to give pro-Remain MPs the chance to “overturn and frustrate” the referendum result. They accused him of not having the courage “to admit what his game is”. Ministers had tried to halt the rebellion with an offer to revisit the issue later in the Commons passage of the bill. Tory rebels shouted: “Too late.”
In extraordinary scenes during the vote, one former rebel —Vicky Ford, Tory MP for Chelmsford —was steered into the government lobby by Philip Hammond, the chancellor. Others who folded at the last moment included George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk.
A governent spokesman said: “We are disappointed that parliament has voted this amendment despite the strong assurances we have set out.” Hinting at future efforts to overturn the amendment, the spokesman added: “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.”
As Brexiteers accused the rebels of giving comfort to Labour, Mrs Morgan said their vilification as “mutineers” by The Daily Telegraph last month had been “very significant” in holding them together. Of the 15 Tory MPs on the front page of the paper, 11 rebelled
Francis Elliott y Oliver Wright