It was always going to be a tough couple of days in the House of Commons for Theresa May’s government and her Brexit strategy. But she managed to avert defeat, by brokering a last minute deal that staved off a rebellion from within her own Conservative party.
Parliament has been debating the EU Withdrawal Bill since September 2017, something which has taken up over 150 hours of its time. Having passed through its commons stages relatively unscathed it saw a series of 15 government defeats in the House of Lords, including an unexpected one on the single market.
Now we have arrived at the final battle between the two chambers and the government. Known as ping-pong, the bill will move between the commons and the lords until both sides are in agreement on the text – or until the government has made enough concessions for the lords to back down. To make matters worse, the justice minister, Philip Lee, resigned just hours before the start of the debate in protest at his own government’s position on Brexit.
It seems clear that no one is really sure which side – either the hard Brexiters or the hard Remainers – won the day, or what the impact of the government’s supposed concession on the clause about a “meaningful vote” for MPs will be. Is May now a hostage to Tory backbenchers? Or is her promise worth nothing at all?
Everything now rides on a promise
MPs started debating the amendments to the bill just after 1pm on June 12. By 2pm the only speeches had been from the two main frontbench spokesmen (Brexit minister, David Davis, and Labour’s Matthew Pennycook). With the first votes happening at 4.15pm this left time for only a handful of speeches from backbenchers before three hours of divisions on a set of amendments which included whether or not parliament would have a “meaningful vote” and so give it’s seal of approval (or not) on the final Brexit deal.
You only needed to look at the size of the amendment paper MPs had to consider to see how squeezed for time the debate was going to be. The Scottish National Party described the timings as “totally laughable”.
The commons chamber may have been the place in which everything was being played out in public, but the real debate and negotiation had already happened elsewhere – in the prime minister’s parliamentary office. May reportedly gave personal assurances to Conservative party rebels, including the former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who then went on to vote with the government and reject the lords amendment on the meaningful vote.
It’s highly likely that the lords will either reinstate their original amendment (or the Grieve version of their amendment), so we can expect many more conversations like this happening behind closed doors in the days to come.
Regardless of what you call it, it’s clear that the widely reported concession, promise, assurance or climb-down made by May on the issue of a “meaningful vote” isn’t watertight. These kinds of promises by the government are fundamental to the way in which parliament and the government work together to craft legislation that the majority of MPs can live with. It’s completely normal for MPs to withdraw their amendments to bills on the basis of a promise “to reconsider” or to “look again” at an issue. Grieve himself described it to the BBC afterwards as an “absolutely normal” compromise. Although a substantial number of these promises are kept, this is not always the case.
But what’s become apparent is that the MPs who attended this (and other) meetings with May have come away with very different interpretations of what happened.
For some, the promise was about taking action and enabling a meaningful vote. For others, it was only a commitment to continue to discuss the issue as the new amendment agreed by the commons goes back to the lords. The difference in this particular case is the enormity of the issue in the context of Brexit and in a climate of suspicion and hostility from many on the Conservative backbenches towards their leader. Reneging on the promise could have disastrous consequences for the government. But it will all depend on what the majority of the soft-Brexit Tory MPs felt that the promise actually was.
Nobody has won yet
The vote is being sold as a victory for Grieve and his band of Tory rebels. Without a clear parliamentary majority, the prime minister was always going to have to take the concerns of these MPs seriously. The votes were won quite comfortably in the end – or as comfortable as you can be with only 316 MPs, ten short of a majority.
If the Conservative rebels want to win the battle on parliament’s scrutiny and control over the final Brexit deal, they must maintain a united front. As my colleague Simon Usherwood has pointed out, in the low trust environment of Brexit politics, no one trusts anyone anymore.
The next few days and weeks will be a challenge for all parties. All will want to stand their ground as much as possible, but in order to move forwards someone will have to compromise.