Given this morning’s ministerial resignation, all looked set fair for an afternoon of high drama in the Commons over the EU Withdrawal Bill. In the end, though, the drama was rather quieter, with the government managing to persuade the Remainer rebels to stand down – temporarily – on the matter of a ‘meaningful vote’. Chief Whip Julian Smith spent the majority of the debate buzzing about the Chamber, consulting with ministers and backbenchers and also beckoning MPs out of the room in little groups. It is since clear that Smith was negotiating the compromise that Solicitor General Robert Buckland started offering during the debate.
Initially, Buckland offered the rebels ‘structured discussions’ on the matter. Then he suggested that the government would accept the first two sections of the amendment, tabled by Dominic Grieve. These would give MPs the power to approve or direct the government’s approach if the Commons rejected the Brexit deal. The government will also table another amendment in the Lords next week to address the third section of Grieve’s amendment, which addresses the possibility of there being no deal by 15 February 2019. The Commons would vote on this, and the government would have to follow the direction of MPs on this matter.
This compromise means that the government won all the votes this afternoon. Key Remainers such as Antoinette Sandbach stood up in the Chamber to tell their colleagues that they had been convinced by what ministers were offering, and that they would then be voting with the government. It wasn’t just ministers: the Prime Minister held talks with some of the rebels shortly before voting began, which swung the day. Even Philip Lee, who had resigned this morning, ended up abstaining on the motion after hearing from Theresa May on the matter.
In the end, MPs voted 324 to 298 to reject the Lords amendment, which had called for MPs to take charge of the Brexit negotiating strategy after voting the deal down. Only two Tory MPs – Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry – rebelled.
This is not a straightforward government win. Indeed, Grieve has only given a temporary blessing to the concession, saying there will be another chance for MPs to vote on it in the Commons if the government does not deliver what the rebels wanted. Grieve has also basically got what he wanted. Lee’s resignation seems to have precipitated the concession, which is in itself significant, and the last-minute nature of these negotiations, some of which were carried out from the government frontbench, shows how weak the government is. There’s also the inevitability that whichever group has been played over the this will start to get rather angry: either the Leavers were wrong to think that not much has been conceded, or the Remainers were wrong to trust the government’s assurances. So there’s trouble ahead, naturally. But worse than that, it does mean that the EU negotiators will now see rather less urgency in getting that Brexit deal sorted in October.