Its concession to Conservative rebels shows it doesn’t have the numbers and it knows itby Peter Kellner / June 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
The government muffled its surrender, but could not conceal it. For the past week, ministers have insisted that parliament must not have the power to tell the government what to do if the Brexit talks broke down. The device ministers proposed—going back on a deal that Dominic Grieve thought he had—was a motion written in such a way that it could not be amended. If talks broke down, the government would tell MPs what had happened, and what it would do next. MPs would merely be able to take note of the breakdown, and not have the power to amend the motion.
In the end, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary backed off. He said that it WOULD be possible to amend the motion, subject to the Speaker’s agreement. Therefore, it WOULD be possible for MPs to say what should then happen. The constitutional principle that Davis had defended for seven days, had to be sacrificed to avoid the overt humiliation of a government defeat.
Worse for the government, future rebellions are likely to be bigger, and less easily bought off.
First, some would-be rebels this time felt that Grieve’s amendment would not have made any real difference. For one thing, it cannot be legally enforced. In legal jargon it is not “justiciable.” However, more widely, if there is no Brexit deal with the European Union, or one that most MPs cannot accept, we shall have an earthquake at Westminster, regardless of the procedures laid down for dealing with it. Political forces, not parliamentary technicalities, will determine what then happens. The Grieve amendment was essentially symbolic. Why incur the wrath of the party leadership voting for something that will make little or no real difference?
Secondly, more substantial votes lie ahead. The fates of the Customs and Trade Bills have yet to be decided. Amendments on the customs union and single market would affect the real world of business, and also address the thorny issue of the Irish border. Here is a chance for rebel Conservative MPs to side with employers and workers in their own constituencies, by voting for measures that will stop a jobs-destroying hard Brexit. This will be easier for them to defend locally than a vote for an arcane procedural measure.
The government’s humiliation does not end there. The rebels were told that a government defeat would weaken Theresa May’s negotiating position. However, the concession that Davis offered in order to avoid defeat is almost as great a sign of weakness.
Had the government been sure of a majority been, say, 20, then there would have been no such concession. May could have reasonably hoped to win the approval of MPs for whatever specific proposals she eventually decides to put to Brussels. Instead, with a majority of only 16 AFTER conceding the key point in Grieve’s amendment, the government’s fragility has been laid bare. Without the concession, it could not be sure of any majority, let alone a comfortable one, on an arcane non-justiciable amendment that has no clear impact on the prosperity of local voters.
Looking ahead to the next few weeks, the message is clear: when MPs have to take real decisions that affect jobs and investment, May will find it even harder to minimise the number of rebel Tory MPs. Unless the government commits to a soft Brexit, with some kind of customs union and single market relationship with the EU, ministers will lose votes on amendments to the Trade and Customs Bills. It is ridiculous to imagine that Michel Barnier will not realise that the prime minister has been wounded by the events of the past seven days.
One more point. May has not enhanced her reputation by the way she sought to link Brexit this week to the extra money for the NHS. Nobody has seriously challenged the analysis of Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that there will be no “Brexit dividend”—indeed, the public finances will be weaker, not stronger, even when the UK finally stops paying into the EU Budget.
What is more, the prime minister’s language was odd. The UK’s net contribution last year to EU was just under £9bn. She called this a “vast amount.” She went on to say that British taxpayers would have to pay “a bit extra” to fund extra spending on the NHS. This has been widely reported to be at least £11bn a year. So, we are supposed to believe that “a bit” can be £2bn MORE than “a vast amount.” Downing Street needs a new abacus.