LONDON — Its all getting very messy.
Late Monday night, amid chaotic scenes in the House of Commons, Theresa May managed to scrape through a rebellion by pro-EU Tory MPs furious at her decision to cave in to a series of Euroskeptic amendments to a key piece of Brexit legislation — but only at the cost of losing another minister from her government.
For many months the prime minister has faced sustained pressure from the pro-Brexit wing of her own party. Monday marked a significant rebellion on Mays left flank, as pro-EU MPs voted with the opposition Labour Party in an attempt to prevent a hardening of the governments position.
In a bid to see off a Brexiteer uprising, No. 10 Downing Street announced early Monday afternoon it would not fight four so-called wrecking amendments laid by hard-line Euroskeptics in Jacob Rees-Moggs European Research Group of Tory MPs, all designed to undermine the prime ministers own Brexit proposal agreed at Chequers earlier this month. Downing Street insisted the amendments did no such thing and chose to climb down rather than risk an embarrassing rebellion at the hands of their own backbench MPs.
May will face a second round of public party in-fighting Tuesday.
Several pro-EU members of Mays own party voted against the government and with the opposition Labour Party, but the prime minister managed to win by just three votes.
Defense Minister Guto Bebb quit Mays government following the vote — preferring to oppose one of the Brexiteer amendments that his pro-Eurpean colleagues insisted only served to undermine the government. In doing so he became the 10th member of the government to quit since the prime minister won Cabinet agreement for her new Brexit plan just over a week ago, including former Brexit Secretary David Davis and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
The scale of the rebellions on both wings of the Conservative Party — first by Brexiteer MPs to force the government to accept their amendments and then by pro-EU MPs in opposition to the climbdown — expose the challenge the prime minister faces as she tries to find a compromise Brexit that all wings of her party and her negotiating partners in Brussels can agree on.
May will face a second round of public party in-fighting Tuesday when anti-Brexit Tories will make another attempt to soften the U.K.s exit from the bloc, with their own proposed amendment to the trade bill. The proposal, according to the Sun, would establish a backstop to Mays new Brexit plan forcing her to agree to join a customs union with the EU if she fails to persuade Brussels to allow Britain a free-trade area on goods by January 21, 2019 — two months from Brexit day.
Taste of battles to come
Mondays votes on the customs bill were a major test of parliamentary strength for both sides of the Brexit debate. The government saw off the pro-EU rebels bid to remove the Euroskeptic clause banning any future customs arrangement with the EU that sees the U.K. collecting tariffs for Brussels without the EU doing the same for Britain in reverse.
Before the vote, Tory MP Anna Soubry told the House of Commons Monday the four changes were “wrecking amendments”
In all, 14 pro-EU Tory MPs rebelled against the government on the key vote, voting with the Labour Party in a bid to strip out the most contentious Brexiteer amendment, but were defeated by a government whipping operation backed by four Euroskeptic Labour MPs who crossed party lines to vote with the government on the customs bill — officially known as the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill.
Anti-Brexit MPs warned Monday that the amendments tied the governments hands in the negotiations with Brussels, dramatically increasing the prospect of a no-deal divorce when Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29 next year.
Experts said the clause would effectively kill off the prime ministers proposed “customs facilitation agreement” — the centerpiece of her Chequers plan for a compromise customs model designed to keep the Irish border open while also allowing the rest of the U.K. to strike free-trade deals with new countries.
In a second key vote shortly afterward, the government saw off pro-EU rebels attempts to strip out the Brexiteer amendment committing the U.K. to a separate VAT system to the EU after Brexit. Experts said the clause would make it much harder to find an agreement on the crucial Irish border issue, which remains the most contentious element holding up the Withdrawal Agreement in Brussels.
A third major amendment accepted by the government — and passed by MPs Monday night — means any special customs status for Northern Ireland after Brexit will now be illegal.
One senior Labour official said this would all-but kill off the governments attempt at agreeing a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, because Brussels will not sign a divorce deal without a legally enforceable “backstop” clause keeping Northern Ireland in the EUs customs union and parts of its single market after Brexit until and unless other arrangements can be found to keep the border open with the Republic.
The fourth amendment backed by MPs stops the whole of the U.K. joining the EUs customs union without an act of parliament.
Before the vote, Tory MP Anna Soubry told the House of Commons Monday the four changes were “wrecking amendments” and accused the government of being frightened by roughly 40 Brexiteers. She said it is time for MPs to “face up to the reality” and questioned who is really in charge: “Is it the prime minister or is it the honourable member for northeast Somerset [Jacob Rees-Mogg]?”