The government suffered a defeat in the Commons this evening. The good news for Theresa May is that it wasn’t the one No 10 were so worried about. Although Philip Lee’s amendment for European medicines regulatory network partnership succeeded, the Tory rebel amendment calling for the government to join a customs union if it does not agree a free-trade deal with the EU was narrowly defeated, at 307 to 301.
This means the government can breathe a little easier for now. They can still claim to agitated Brexiteers that they are negotiating a deal which would allow them to strike international trade deals. As for Brussels, May told the Brexit inner Cabinet many weeks ago that the EU wouldn’t engage with the UK’s customs proposals until they saw Parliament would not support staying in the customs union. On hearing the news, the relief on Liam Fox’s face was palpable – and Chief Whip Julian Smith even managed a chuckle. That joy, however, will be short-lived. Following a turbulent few weeks, the Tories are in ‘least worst option’ territory and May’s problems are far from over.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the government’s not so cunning plan to commence recess early – and have the House rise on Thursday. A proposal to have an early summer holiday when the UK is on the brink of a national crisis over its Brexit strategy doesn’t seem like the most obvious vote winner. In fact, after Tory MPs including Nick Boles, Michael Fallon and Nicholas Soames pointed this out, the government had to belatedly drop the plan this evening. Why did they propose it in the first place? Well, in the Commons’ tearoom talk is rife that the number of letters sent to Graham Brady – chair of the 1922 committee – calling for a ‘no confidence’ vote in May is perilously close to the required 48. If Parliament isn’t technically sitting, no vote can take place. With the House now not due to rise until next Tuesday, No 10 will be hoping today’s small victory is enough to keep May in place in the coming days.