11 Jun 2018

May to Tory MPs: give me strength

Political Editor

Mrs May has pleaded with backbench MPs not to undermine her negotiating position as she speaks to EU leaders at the end of June. The country needs to show a united front was the spirit of the remarks. Defeats would be very unhelpful.

She was speaking ahead of two days of voting in the Commons as she tries to reverse Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

After her plea for unity in votes there were follow-up supportive speeches from one Remain voter, Richard Benyon, and then the former Tory leader and passionate Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith. Phliip Davies, Richard Graham, Theresa Villiers and Robert Goodwill were amongst those who added supportive remarks but Philip Davies expressed concern over the backstop arrangement on the customs union announced last week and over the length of the wait to deliver Brexit.

None of the main rebels identified with Dominic Grieve and threatening to rebel actually spoke and some leaving the meeting thought there was a danger they might’ve been provoked by the public pressure. But there attacks on divisions within the Cabinet. Patrick McLoughlin suggested Mrs May memo the cabinet reminding them of the need for collective responsibility. Keith Simpson suggested that maybe the Chequers summit awayday when senior cabinet ministers are supposed to agree part two of the backstop should replace paintball with live ammunition.

Steve Baker, the Brexit Minister, insisted to waiting reporters that the Tories were going to show their unity around government policy in the next two days. But one source at his department said Mr Baker himself was considered so toxic with remainers that he was going to be relieved of a high profile speaking responsibility during the next two days’ debates so as not to alienate Remain MPs.

The government is hoping it has destroyed the chances of a defeat over the customs union amendment sent back from the House of Lords with a deft bit of redrafting and their own “in lieu” amendment. That could though come back with an amendment to the Trade Bill due to start its Commons passage just before summer recess.

That leaves the big potential remaining defeat tomorrow on whether the Commons (boosted by a Lords amendment) should have more powers when a deal is signed with the EU: not just to vote it down but to send negotiators back with a pad of post-it notes outlining a new negotiating position, maybe even to insist there be a second referendum.

Some in government think they may have already squeezed that rebellion down as well. Labour could be two MPs below full strength with one MP thought to be too sick to travel and another, Heidi Alexander, having quit the Commons triggering a by-election on Thursday. The numbers could still be uncomfortably tight and you can’t rule out rebels who’ve thought of laying down their weapons being provoked into picking them up again.