A government defeat is always embarrassing, but considering this current government’s precarious parliamentary foundations, it was perhaps inevitable that it would happen, especially on an issue as contested and divisive as Brexit. To some extent, it’s a testimony to party cohesion and the skills of the Conservative whips that it did not happen sooner. However, now that it has happened there is every chance that “Team Theresa May” will find it increasingly hard to deliver its electoral promise of strong and stable leadership.
A group of 11 Tory backbenchers voted against the government on an amendment to ensure a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal, despite a heavy-handed attempt to stop them. If newspaper reports are to be believed, the debacle has severely damaged the relationship between Conservative whips and would-be and actual rebels. This is only likely to make managing the Conservative backbenchers even more difficult, something not helped by the recent promotion of Gavin Williamson from chief whip to secretary of state for defence. His replacement, Julian Smith, is seen as less experienced and he and his team seem to have overstepped the mark in their attempts to control the rebellion. Clamping down this hard on potential rebels and still suffering defeat does not bode well for future clashes on the Brexit bill.
In addition, having seen the whips fail to stop a government defeat and noticed that the business continues more or less as usual will probably make it more likely that Conservative backbenchers will be emboldened to rebel again. Defying the whips is a powerful and potentially addictive drug.
The Conservative whips are also going to struggle to rely on Brexit-supporting Labour MPs. There are several Labour backbenchers who have supported the government’s relatively hard line on Brexit so far, but when there is a realistic prospect of humiliating the government frontbench, that support is much less likely to remain.
Looking ahead, May is likely to see her already badly damaged authority and control further eroded. As she digests this parliamentary defeat, she will no doubt be reminded of the fact that it was her decision to call an early election that lost her majority. She’ll also now be thinking of the fact that it was her decision to change her chief whip. And, she’ll remember that her negotiating tactics with the EU have so far seemingly been to rule out certain compromises, right up until the moment when she made a major compromise on Northern Ireland, precisely along the lines of what the EU27 were demanding.
A narrow path
There is a limit to how many times a leader can make missteps like these before they are replaced. Indeed, the only reason that May survived losing her majority is that the role as prime minister is so unappealing at the moment that no one else is particularly keen on the job.
May’s key Brexit problem in this rebellion and in future clashes is that that the compromises needed to keep her Brexit-cautious MPs in line risk upsetting her Brexit enthusiasts. The lack of a majority means that May has to tread an increasingly narrow path between “Remoaners” and “Brexstremists”. It’s entirely likely that this path will eventually disappear entirely.
If and when that happens, the Conservative party does not have a lot of good options available (such as a new leadership contest or another election). There are few signs that a new leader would have an easier time than May in controlling Conservative MPs on either side of the Brexit divide, and despite recent fluctuations, the polls are not looking particularly promising. Meanwhile, time is rapidly running out on reaching a deal with an increasingly annoyed EU27. All told, these interesting times look likely to become yet more interesting.