The government has just been defeated in the House of Commons on whether the final Brexit deal will get a ‘meaningful vote’ by Parliament. MPs voted 309-305 to pass the amendment to the EU withdrawal bill by Dominic Grieve.
There were dramatic scenes in the Commons, as MPs had initially believed that the government had won. This was based on the way one of the tellers for the rebels was standing in the Chamber (the tellers are MPs who announce the result, and they stand according to whether the Ayes or Noes have it). Heidi Alexander only moved to the other side of the floor at the very last minute, revealing that there had in fact been a government defeat.
This is the first serious Commons defeat for Theresa May since the snap election, which is perhaps partly a tribute to the work of the whips in keeping things quiet until now, or perhaps merely a function of the way parliamentary business has been scheduled. Either way, Number 10 did not want to lose this vote. Some Tories had suggested that the government should see Commons defeats merely as MPs trying to improve legislation, rather than a humiliation, but this is something that governments of all hues struggle with. The last-ditch efforts by Number 10 and the whips, which ranged from bizarre threats of legal action to letters written at 5.30am, showed that ministers had not taken this advice to learn to stop worrying and love the rebels. It shows that there is a fundamental distrust between a significant number of Tory MPs and Number 10. David Cameron found that once this distrust started on Europe, it never stopped. It’s just that this time round, it’s not the Eurosceptics who are causing trouble, but previously ultra-loyal former ministers such as Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan.
These Brexitsceptic MPs are now rebels, but Number 10 and those voting with the government missed a trick in suggesting that they were just bitter troublemakers. Dominic Grieve simply does not have the disposition of some of the rebels who caused such trouble under Cameron’s leadership. The better strategy would have been to engage with these MPs on the point of principle – but even then it is unlikely that they would have yielded, and so the government perhaps should have listened rather than hoping that something would come up at the last minute.