Theresa May has received a rare but much needed boost from MPs this evening, as Sir Graham Brady’s amendment to her withdrawal deal passed the Commons by 317 to 301 votes.
May welcomed the vote, and suggested it means MPs have indicated they will support her deal if changes are made to the backstop by the EU. She said: “It is now clear that there is a route which can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this house to leave the EU with a deal.”
The Cooper amendment, which would have cleared the way to delaying Brexit, was defeated by 321 to 298.
The Prime Minister affirmed that she will seek to return to the EU in a bid to secure changes on the Northern Irish backstop. Ever the downbeat realist, May added that there is “limited appetite” in the EU to renegotiate the deal, and that “changing it will not be easy.” Indeed, it will not be easy. Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, said in no uncertain terms earlier today that the deal was categorically not up for renegotiation. EU Council President Donald Tusk issued a statement after the votes in the Commons saying the negotiations are closed.
Rounding off her statement, May also addressed the success of Dame Caroline Spelman’s amendment – a symbolic vote calling on the government to take no deal off the table – and said that while the Commons has made it clear that there is no desire to leave the EU without a deal, “simply opposing no deal is not enough to stop it.” Spelman’s amendment passed by 318-310. Crucially, however, it is non-binding.
May also invited leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn to join in cross-party talks, and he responded that he is prepared to meet the prime minister to discuss the kind of agreement the Labour party seeks with the EU. “It is exactly the offer that was made last September, and exactly the offer that was made two weeks ago” Corbyn added.
Along with the defeat of the Cooper amendment, four of the seven other amendments were defeated. Labour’s by 327 votes to 296, the SNP’s by 327 to 39, Dominic Grieve’s by 321 votes to 301, and Labour Rachel Reeves by 322 to 290.
Labour’s amendment (defeated by 31 votes) sought to take no deal off the table and to push for a customs union solution instead.
The SNP’s amendment (defeated by 288 votes) called for an extension of Article 50, and too sought to take no deal off the table.
The former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, had tabled an amendment seeking a series of indicative votes in the Commons on the various Brexit options available. Despite Labour front-bench support it still lost.
But it was Yvette Cooper’s amendment on which the hopes of those seeking to cancel or delay Brexit rested. It sought to extend Article 50 to the end of 2019 if May failed to get her deal through parliament by the end of February. The Government whipped their MPs against it, and 14 Labour MPs voted with the Tories against the amendment. Among the Tory MPs who voted for Cooper’s amendment were Ken Clarke, Nick Boles, and Sarah Wollaston.
Labour MP Rachel Reeve’s amendment (defeated by 32 votes) sought a two-year extension of article 50 if May failed to secure a deal by the end of February.
Victory on the Brady amendment – proposed by Tory 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady – was the big prize for Number 10, which has not had much to cheer about of late. Only thirty-six hours ago Brady’s initiative was headed for defeat, until the hardline ERG switched and May gave it her backing.
The Brady amendment sends May back to Brussel’s to seek “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” despite Weyand’s emphatic claim that there will be no renegotiation. The Tory hope is that the amendment will prove MPs’ commitment to getting a deal through parliament, but their refusal to do so if the backstop remains as is.
Despite the backstop being integral to May’s deal, the government decided late to whip its MPs to back the Brady amendment. Little by little May seems to be growing more flexible. It may be a case of too little, and too late. It sets up a strange state of affairs – an amendment which compromises the entire foundation of May’s deal and the backstop she agreed could be her saving grace.
But Tory MPs are moving. Overnight there were significant shifts with the revelation that rival factions had been involved in secret negotiations to compromise in order to get Brexit over the line. ERG figurehead and arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexiteer Steve Baker, Remainer Nicky Morgan, and Brexit-sceptic ministers Robert Buckland and Stephen Hammond met for talks – chaired by minister Kit Malthouse. The result of this meeting is a proposal dubbed the Malthouse compromise.
The proposal seeks to extend the transition period until December 2021, allowing the government more time to seek a trade deal as an alternative to the backstop. The prime minister if the plan ever comes to fruition during that time will attempt to renegotiate the backstop, replacing it with a trade agreement supported by new technology to avoid customs check on the Irish border.
There is a slight hitch – just a slight hitch – in the plan however, as it is unclear whether such technological solutions currently exist. If the prime minister fails to renegotiate the backstop and replace it with a trade deal backed by non-existent technology, the proposal calls for what is being referred to as a “managed no deal.”
The European Commission is not exactly on board with this plan, and many remain-leaning Tory MPs are sceptical too. But as Editor of Reaction Iain Martin wrote in his newsletter today – the proposal is a positive sign that the highly divided Tory party is finally seeking compromise with itself, from Remain-leaning realists to hard-Brexiteer ERGers. And with leader Theresa May incapable of managing her own party, those trying it “deserve credit.”