Theresa May has just suffered another extraordinary defeat, losing on Caroline Spelman’s amendment (which rules out no-deal Brexit under any circumstances) by just four votes. This was not expected. Spelman even tried to withdraw the amendment, but was too late.
This Spelman amendment said that the House “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship.”.
This is different to the main motion, which offers a caveat: specifically a declaration that ‘leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement’.
The Spelman amendment is not legally binding: it’s a vote expressing the view of the House. But the problem that the whips have is that the government motion is now going to be voted on with Spelman’s amendment in place.
Hence the new panic. The government has changed its whipping arrangements with just minutes to spare – now asking MPs to vote against the motion that it tabled. They have imposed a three-line whip, and are trying to shepherd Tories into the correct lobby, panicking that some of them won’t have read the message containing the updated arrangements. After all, they have been debating this all day long thinking it was a free vote. And and the last minute, due to the Spelman amendment passing, it’s now a whipped vote.
The scenes in the lobbies are extraordinary. MPs have contacted me from to say that the chief whip and deputy chief whip have been accosting ministers, to try to get them to vote with the new whipping arrangements. In at least one instance, these personal confrontations have failed.
If you’re not confused, you haven’t been following closely enough. But it’s fair to say that this attempt by Theresa May to bring clarity after last night’s defeat hasn’t exactly gone to plan.