MPs voted by a majority of 16 to block a proposal that would have given parliament more power to direct the prime minister’s approach in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The proposed amendment would have made the likelihood of a crashing out without an agreement far less likely.
Brexiteers immediately seized on the result as a “pivotal moment” ensuring that a no-deal Brexit remains a distinct possibility, something they claim strengthens the government’s hand in negotiations.
The prime minister’s victory means there will for now be no additional constraints on her from Westminster, as she seeks to secure an exit agreement from Brussels, adhering to the mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
Earlier this week pro-EU rebels looked ready to defeat the government by forcing upon Ms May proposals that would have allowed parliament more control to approve or reject her plans – or even direct them – if she fails to agree a deal with Europe.
But a sustained and apparently effective whipping operation, coupled with a last minute olive branch – consisting of a statement of the government’s understanding of parliament’s role – was enough to convince enough rebels not to go in for the kill.
After the vote had taken place, commons speaker John Bercow announced that 319 MPs had backed the government and 303 had backed the rebel amendment, ostensibly bringing to an end what has been the toughest legislative battle of Ms May’s Brexit so far.
The legislation subsequently returned to the Lords in the final stage of "parliamentary ping-pong", where it passed without a vote.
Ms May described the passage of the bill as a "crucial step in delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit".
Brexit secretary David Davis said the proposals would have hamstrung the UK in negotiations, arguing: “There are plenty of voices on the European side of the negotiation that seek to punish us, let’s be very clear, and to do us harm; who wish to present us an unambiguously bad deal, some to dissuade others from following us and others who would do so with the intention of reversing the referendum, of making us lose our nerve and rejoin the European Union.
“If it undermines the UK’s ability to walk away, this amendment makes this outcome more likely.
“This is the paradox [for the rebels] – in trying to head off no deal, you actually make no deal more likely.”
Earlier in the day government sources had begun to speak more optimistically of how that message was hitting home with rebels, while one backbencher who said he planned to vote against the government said whips had been partaking in the “normal dark arts of Westminster” – buying rebels off, or threatening them into submission.
Mr Davis also made another move to try and stave of the defeat, offering a last minute olive branch in the form of a letter to rebels, outlining how parliament would, under existing arrangements, have an adequate role in scrutinising Brexit – and pointing out that speaker John Bercow would have a key role in deciding whether the Commons could amend government plans at a later date.
The move was enough for some rebels including ex-cabinet minister Nicky Morgan who said the letter was “welcome” and that she would now back the government.
Even more critical was the intervention in the chamber from Dominic Grieve, who also announced he would now not rebel against the government, to cries of “shame” from Labour benches.
The ex-attorney general admitted that he had been somewhat persuaded by the Tory whips’ argument that parliament should not tie the government’s hands in negotiations, and also argued that Mr Davis’s statement amounted to an “obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of [parliament] over the executive in black and white language”.
But Tory Remainer Antoinette Sandbach said she would stick by the rebel amendment to provide a means of avoiding “catastrophe” if negotiations with Brussels break down.
“Not to have a process in place for what would happen should negotiations collapse would be irresponsible,” she warned.
Conservative former minister Anna Soubry also rebelled, insisting that MPs’ power to reject the government’s plans must be enshrined in statute, while senior Tory MP Sarah Wollaston said she was “disappointed”.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Davis of trying to “sideline parliament when its voice is most needed”.
He added: “Labour has long argued that parliament should have a proper role in the Brexit negotiations and a meaningful vote on the terms upon which we leave the European Union.
“We will continue to make that argument and press our case at every opportunity.”
Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said the vote would strengthen Ms May’s hand at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on 28-29 June.
Following the vote the North East Somerset MP, who heads the Tory backbench European Research Group, told Sky News: “This means the prime minister goes to negotiations in June with full strength, with the ability to say the legislation to leave the EU, under EU law and UK law, is now fully in place.”
Fellow Brexiteer John Baron MP said: “The government success ensures that a ‘no deal’ outcome remains possible. This is important.
“Whilst most of us want a good trade deal, to have ruled out the ‘no deal’ option would have guaranteed a worse outcome. The EU should take from this that we now mean business when negotiating.”
The whole row was sparked by the Lords last month passing a plan to give parliament power to direct Ms May’s actions if she failed to seal a Brexit deal later this year, meaning it would be unlikely she could take the UK out of Europe with no deal.
Ms May was set to lose a vote on that plan in the Commons last Tuesday, which would have made it law, and had also rejected a compromise from Mr Grieve – but in a last-minute move that saw her avoid a major defeat, she met pro-EU rebels and promised to bring forward her own compromise proposals.
The MPs left the meeting believing parliament would at least be given power to approve or reject her approach in the event no deal is reached with the EU, but what was published earlier this week gave them no binding vote.
With the issue back in the Commons this week, whips were determined not to give more ground to avoid a defeat, with Mr Davis’s letter constituting their final bid at a compromise.
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