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.