LONDON — Theresa May breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday as she cleared (probably) her final Brexit hurdle before parliaments summer break.
After just over a week of sustained pressure from all sides of her party over a new Brexit plan, the U.K. prime minister averted defeat on key legislation that would have rewritten her negotiating priorities and could have been the killer blow to her fragile leadership.
It took serious arm-twisting. An amendment to the Trade Bill — put forward by pro-EU rebel Tory MP Stephen Hammond, which could have legally bound the U.K. to seeking a customs union with the EU — was only defeated by 307 votes to 301.
Chaotic parliamentary maneuvering over the last two days has exposed the prime ministers precarious position as she tries to agree a Brexit plan that both wings of her party and her negotiating partners in Brussels can live with. Having lost her majority via a self-inflicted general election just over a year ago, May walks a tightrope between red lines on all sides and the constant threat that her own backbench MPs could topple her.
Government whips warned Remain-leaning MPs thinking about voting for the amendment that they would be risking a general election if they did, one MP said.
The Remain-leaning rebels retreat to lick their wounds, while leading Brexit supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group of Tory backbenchers will be emboldened again.
That threat was not enough to prevent 12 Conservative rebels from voting for the customs union arrangement they believe is vital to protect the U.K.s traders. But in the end, five Labour Brexiteers saved the day for the government, delivering the crucial votes that tilted the balance.
A vote for a customs union strategy Tuesday would have enraged Mays other band of potential rebels, the hard-line Brexiteers, some of whom have already called for a vote of no confidence in Mays leadership over her new, softer “Chequers strategy” for Brexit that resulted in the resignation of key Brexiteer ministers David Davis and Boris Johnson.
But as it is, the Remain-leaning rebels retreat to lick their wounds, while leading Brexit supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group of Tory backbenchers will be emboldened again — hopeful, rightly or wrongly, that they have killed off key aspects of the Chequers approach.
Whereas on Monday, their amendments to Brexit legislation, aimed at delivering a harder line, were embraced by the government and narrowly passed, on Tuesday the government resisted a proposal from the opposing faction of Tory Remainers and won.
Of the two bands of MPs who could block Mays Brexit, the hard-liners now look far stronger than the Europhiles — and that could have implications for the kind of Brexit May ultimately delivers.
Schools out for summer
While she looks safe for the summer, May goes into the six-week parliamentary recess with her party utterly divided — and her governments strategy surviving only thanks to the tiny number of Labour Euroskeptic votes who defied their own party leadership to back the government.
Bad blood between the two factions within the Tory Party was on display for a second day running in the House of Commons. Former Justice Minister Phillip Lee, who voted with the pro-EU rebels, said he hadnt been intending to do so until Mondays government capitulation to the Brexiteers “changed the dynamic.”
“I started the week intending to support our prime minister in her deal and the white paper, yesterday changed that,” he said.
Leading pro-EU MP Nicky Morgan characterized the customs union amendment as an opportunity for May to get the Chequers plan back on track. The government didnt see it that way, with Mays official spokesman insisting earlier in the day that a customs union is not an option because it would preclude free-trade agreements with non-EU countries, seen by many Brexit supporters as the key upside of leaving the EU.
When Hammond formally put forward the amendment minutes before the vote (after rejecting a merely symbolic government concession) he said he did so with “a heavy heart.” MPs were told that, had the amendment passed, the government would have triggered a “back me or sack me” motion of confidence in the government before the summer break, risking a general election should May lose, according to one MP.
May looks like she will fight on going into the summer when, away from Westminster, MPs are less likely to coordinate a plot to oust her.
Tory whips continued to try to convince the pro-EU rebels right up until the final minutes before the vote. In the end, it was the Labour votes of Brexiteers Kate Hoey, John Mann, Graham Stringer, Frank Field and the suspended Kelvin Hopkins that saved the governments skin.
Rocky road ahead
In truth, the governments Brexit white paper, with its “common rule book” with the EU on goods standards, is still likely to severely restrict the governments room to maneuver on trade. But the customs union vote had acquired symbolic importance, and a victory for the pro-Europeans would have been the final straw for many Brexiteers, potentially triggering enough requests to topple the prime minister. It only takes 48 of the partys MPs to ask for a vote of confidence for the leader to be challenged.
“More people are putting in letters,” said one leading Brexiteer MP ahead of the vote, indicating that had the government lost, all bets would have been off. It is unknown how many letters have been sent and only one man, Conservative Party 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady, knows for certain.
Ironically, a short-lived attempt by the government to bring forward parliaments recess by four days, from Tuesday next week to this Thursday — taking the heat off May by limiting time for a challenge before the summer — was met with such derision by Tory MPs that it may have encouraged some to send their letters of no confidence, the MP said bitterly. “The optics would be terrible,” they said. In the end, the government dropped the proposal.
Theresa May having survived another round of the parliamentary Brexit gauntlet, still needs to take her new deal to the EUs negotiators | Matt Cardy/WPA pool via Getty Images
For now, with a defeat on her customs plan averted, May looks like she will fight on going into the summer when, away from Westminster, MPs are less likely to coordinate a plot to oust her. The government will also likely reflect on the fact that, when push comes to shove in the House of Commons, proposals for a more distant relationship with the EU tend to pass more easily than proposals for a closer one — something that could be significant when MPs vote on the final deal May delivers this fall.
Before then, the prime minister, having survived another round of the parliamentary Brexit gauntlet, still needs to take her new deal to the EUs negotiators, who are offering talks over the summer.
As is so often with May, she wont have long to enjoy the sunshine before the next big Brexit drama.