Theresa May faces series of rebellions after embarrassing climbdown over abortion vote

MPs vow to force defeats in the months to come, including over Brexit

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 29 June 2017 20:06 BST
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Philip Hammond indicates NHS will fund abortions for Northern Irish women

A weakened Theresa May faces a series of Commons rebellions after she caved in to the first backbench revolt of the new Parliament in order to pass a vote on the Queen’s Speech.

MPs seized on the Prime Minister’s climbdown – ending abortion charges for women from Northern Ireland forced to travel to England – by vowing to force defeats in the months to come, including over Brexit.

The warning came after a breathtaking U-turn pledged free NHS terminations for the many hundreds of pregnant Northern Irish women who make the journey across the Irish Sea every year.

Chancellor Philip Hammond interrupted his own speech in the Commons to hurriedly promise MPs that the need to pay for a private abortion would be scrapped – at an annual cost of £1m.

Just hours earlier, the Department of Health had denied there was even a consultation into making the change, despite pressure to do so.

But several Conservative backbenchers had backed Labour MPs in calling for free terminations, threatening the Government with its first defeat, just one week into the new Parliament.

In the Commons, Tory backbenchers warned more rebellions were on the cards, as Tom Tugendhat and Bob Neill vowed they would not stand by and allow the pursuit of a hard Brexit based on “ideology”, rather than the needs of the economy.

Another Conservative MP, Heidi Allen, called on the Prime Minister to “be compassionate” rather than focusing merely on economic competence, telling her: “This party must change.”

Many at Westminster believe the May Government is only holding on because Tory MPs’ cannot agree on who would be best to take over as Prime Minister and their desire to avoid another general election.

The Government’s perilous position was also laid bare by a succession of Cabinet ministers being flown back to bolster numbers for the Queen’s Speech votes.

MPs vote in favour of Queen's Speech

The Prime Minister herself cut short a visit to Berlin to prepare for next month’s G20 summit, which included talks with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Sarah Champion, Labour’s shadow women and equalities minister, said: “The threat of defeat, forced by the Labour Party, shows how weak the Tories are.”

Former Labour minister David Lammy said: “We were promised strong and stable but, before the Queen’s Speech was even voted on, we have already seen a U-turn.”

And Tom Brake, the Lib Dem Brexit spokesman, said: “This whole episode exposes Theresa May’s weakness.

“The Government has been forced to concede because it doesn’t have the numbers any more. This opens up the possibility of more concessions – including on Brexit.”

In the German capital earlier in the day, Ms Merkel said Ms May had “asked for your indulgence” for having to leave before a planned joint press conference – because of the need to be at Westminster.

James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, left the Belfast talks to restore power sharing early – just as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had returned from Cyprus reunification talks before they had finished, a day earlier.

The abortion climbdown came just 24 hours after No 10 appeared to bend to pressure to end the harsh 1 per cent public sector pay cap, before the Treasury stamped on that concession.

Ms May still faces a revolt by dozens of Tory MPs if she refuses to axe the pay cap, due to run until the end of the decade.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister – crucially – succeeded in passing her Queen’s Speech, a milestone moment given the many traumas since her general election disaster.

It passed with a majority of 14, one more than her working “majority” with the controversial support of the ten Democratic Unionist MPs.

Labour’s split on Brexit was also laid bare when 49 of the party’s MPs defied Jeremy Corbyn by backing a rebel motion calling for Britain to stay in the EU single market and customs union.

The revolt triggered the sackings of three Labour frontbenchers, with another resigning, as the Labour leader used his new authority to impose order immediately.

Mr Corbyn had ordered his MPs to abstain, after his amendment called instead for the “exact same benefits” to be achieved outside the single market, mirroring the Government’s stance.

Behind the scenes, a shadow Cabinet is being fought over the policy, with some senior Labour figures pushing for trying to stay in a “reformed” single market.

The abortion U-turn was confirmed in a letter to MPs sent by equalities minister Justine Greening, who promised the NHS in England would not be short-changed.

“I share the concerns of many colleagues about the experience of women from Northern Ireland obtaining an abortion through the NHS in England,” Ms Greening wrote.

Charities hailed the decision as a “landmark moment”, while still criticising the “gross injustice whereby women in Northern Ireland are denied access to abortion care at home”.

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