This week a Conservative politician managed to get both the SNP and Labour to applaud them in the Chamber. Unfortunately for Theresa May, it wasn’t in response to government policy. Instead it was Europhile – and Tory grandee – Ken Clarke, who took the opportunity to explain why he thinks Nigel Farage is the ‘most successful politician’ of his generation, why bent bananas won’t be making a comeback and, most importantly, why MPs ought to oppose Theresa May’s Brexit date amendment (also known as amendment 381) to the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Announced in the Telegraph last week, May has put an amendment in the bill which would mean the date of Brexit (11pm GMT, midnight in Brussels, on March 29 2019) will be written into law so as to ensure that the process of leaving the European Union will not be derailed.
The problem is May’s announcement has gone down like a cup of cold sick with Tory rebels. Although it was intended to keep Brexiteers on side – and it may well have succeeded in its aim – the backlash from the Remainers in the plan over her cunning plan is more than she could have anticipated.
On Tuesday, Ken Clarke described May’s last-minute amendment to the bill as a ‘sop’ to hardline Eurosceptics likely to be upset by the government’s decision to announce that the final Brexit deal will take the form of an act of parliament. His comments were echoed by Tory rebel Dominic Grieve who said the amendment was ‘quite simply unacceptable’.
The rebels feel as though May’s intervention has worsened the situation. This leaves No 10 with a problem of their own making. As things stand, it’s not clear that the amendment will pass. If it were defeated in the Commons, it would be disastrous for May – suggesting to Brussels that she does not have a majority for her plan for Brexit. If it’s withdrawn, it will be another humiliation for a weak and wobbly government. The amendment will not be debated until the final day of the committee stage next month. It follows that between now and then the government have a fight on their hands winning over rebels – otherwise disaster is imminent.