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Theresa May sees off Brexit rebellion with last-minute concession

The expected revolt by pro-EU Tories crumbled as heavily pregnant and sick opposition MPs turned out to support a ‘meaningful vote’.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators campaign outside the Houses of Parliament in London (Yui Mok/PA)
Anti-Brexit demonstrators campaign outside the Houses of Parliament in London (Yui Mok/PA)

Theresa May has seen off a Commons rebellion on her flagship Brexit bill after a last-minute concession to pro-EU MPs.

MPs voted by 319 to 303 to reject a House of Lords amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would have ensured the Commons would have the chance to block a “no deal” Brexit.

The legislation must now go back to the Upper House in the latest stage of “parliamentary ping-pong”, but the MPs’ vote essentially means Mrs May has won the battle over a bill which is vital to ensure a smooth withdrawal from the EU.

Following the vote, the Prime Minister issued a call for national and party unity.

Speaking at a reception hosted in Westminster by think tank Policy Exchange, Mrs May said: “With the Withdrawal Bill on its way to the statute book, it is time to unite as a country and as a party and focus on getting the very best Brexit deal for Britain.

“More people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else in history.

“And I think nothing would hurt our democracy more than to give the people the choice and then not to trust their judgment when they give it.

“I think that by honouring that decision, we are showing that in the United Kingdom, in the mother of parliaments, when the people speak their voice is heard.”

(PA Graphics)

In dramatic scenes at Westminster, MPs were told shortly before the key vote an official ministerial statement will be issued on Thursday making clear it is ultimately for Speaker John Bercow to decide whether they get a “meaningful vote” on a no-deal withdrawal from the EU.

The concession was accepted by leading pro-EU Tory Dominic Grieve, who was greeted with jeers of “shame” from the opposition benches when he declared he would back the Government.

But it was dismissed as a fudge by Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and described as meaningless by Labour whips.

Mr Grieve had tabled an amendment to the bill, requiring MPs to be given the opportunity to approve or reject the Government’s plans for the next steps in the case that no agreement can be reached with Brussels by Brexit Day in March next year.

With the Government instead offering only an unamendable “neutral motion” allowing MPs to take note of the situation, Mrs May was thought to be facing a knife-edge vote.

(PA Graphics)

Downing Street’s determination to force their motion through was indicated when Tory whips made clear they would not abide by a parliamentary convention allowing votes to be “nodded through” from ambulances and cars in the courtyard outside if MPs are too ill to physically pass through the voting lobbies.

Bradford West’s Naz Shah, who has been ill, was pushed in to vote in a wheelchair with a sick bucket on her lap, in scenes which fellow Labour MP Catherine McKinnell said showed an “utter lack of humanity and compassion” from the Government.

Meanwhile pregnant Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson and Labour MP Laura Pidcock turned out to oppose the PM’s plans despite being close to their due dates.

The statement to be issued on Thursday by Brexit Secretary David Davis states explicitly that the parliamentary rule-book gives the Speaker the power to determine whether a motion is amendable or not.

It also notes the parliamentary convention that time is made available to debate motions tabled by MPs on matters of concern.

But Downing Street left no doubt ministers are confident of drafting a motion which Mr Bercow will deem to be unamendable.

Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “We will ensure that under standing orders the motion we bring forward is neutral.”

Dominic Grieve was greeted with jeers of ‘shame’ from the opposition benches (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Grieve said the statement amounted to an “obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place over the executive in black and white language”.

And former minister Stephen Hammond said: “Today the Government have in effect finally agreed that Parliament will have a meaningful vote in the event of no deal.

“They have confirmed this could be an amendable motion, with no further constraints on Parliament, giving Parliament a real say on the our country’s future.”

But Tory Remainer Antoinette Sandbach said she would stick by the rebel amendment to provide a means of avoiding “catastrophe” if negotations with Brussels break down.

“Not to have a process in place for what would happen should negotiations collapse would be irresponsible,” she warned.

Conservative former minister and anti-Brexiteer Anna Soubry also rebelled, insisting MPs’ power to reject the Government’s plans must be enshrined in statute.

Also rebelling was Phillip Lee, who quit his job as justice minister in order to vote against the Government last week, along with Tory backbenchers Heidi Allen, Kenneth Clarke and Sarah Wollaston.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Davis of trying to “sideline Parliament when its voice is most needed”.

Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said the vote would strengthen Mrs May’s hand at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on June 28-29.

He told Sky News: “This means the Prime Minister goes to negotiations in June with full strength, with the ability to say the legislation to leave the EU, under EU law and UK law, is now fully in place.”

Mr Rees-Mogg said he did not believe the Speaker would take a “cavalier and high-handed approach” by disregarding the principle in standing orders that neutral motions are unamendable.

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