After much build-up in the press and around Westminster, Theresa May avoided a battering from the Commons over Brexit – for this week, at least.
On Tuesday, MPs debated and voted on proposed amendments to the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill – which is still a long way from becoming law, but has already been touted as ‘the greatest constitutional change since the war’.
The Bill is now at the stage known as ‘ping pong’. The Lords have proposed amendments to the Bill and now it’s up to the Commons to decide which, if any, changes they’ll accept. As happened yesterday, MPs, including from the government, can propose amendments to the Lords’ amendments too.
Controversially, the government only scheduled a few hours of parliamentary time for the Commons to debate and vote on the proposed amendments. Many felt this was nowhere near enough time to really get to grips with so many points – especially given the importance of many of the amendments.
The government didn’t lose a single vote yesterday out of 14. But it was forced to offer Tory rebels some big concessions.
Perhaps the most significant compromise from Mrs May was on what happens if there’s no deal.
The Lords amendment said that the Commons should get a vote on the proposed Brexit deal. The Lords themselves would get chance to consider a motion, but that wouldn’t mean a binding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote for them.
Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, took up the Lords’ meaningful vote clause and ran with it in the Commons. Grieve has long been a thorn in the government’s side over Brexit, and yesterday was no different.
Grieve’s amendment was in three parts. Part A said that if parliament rejects the final Brexit deal, the government would have to set out a new approach within seven days. Part B said that if no deal with the EU was reached by 30 November 2018, the government would have to come to parliament and explain exactly what would happen next. Part C would give parliament the power to issue direct orders to the government if no deal was in place by 15 February 2019.
Some pretty punchy stuff from Grieve, then, with the possibility that parliament could be in the Brexit driving seat if talks with the EU collapse. But how much of the proposed amendment has actually been accepted by the government?
It emerged last night – after much horse-trading around Westminster – that the government would accept parts A and B of Grieve’s amendments.
But part C – arguably the most controversial section of the proposal – has been pushed back, with Theresa May apparently promising to have further discussions in the Lords and Commons as ping pong between the two Houses of Parliament continues.
This was enough to convince Tory rebels not to vote against the government, but senior backbenchers have threatened insurrection if Theresa May doesn’t make good on that promise to revisit part C of the Grieve amendment.
So it’s worth remembering that while the government didn’t lose any votes yesterday, Mrs May was forced into some embarrassing climb-downs that could come back to haunt her.