May’s final warning to Tory rebels: back me or lose Brexit
PM humiliated in chaotic day as no-deal is rejected Party split exposed as four cabinet ministers defy whip Withdrawal deal to be put to MPs for third meaningful vote
Theresa May will attempt one final desperate roll of the dice on her Brexit deal, issuing a stark warning to mutinous Brexiters that they must approve her offer by next week or face a long article 50 extension.
The prime minister was humiliated yet again amid chaotic scenes last night in parliament as her cabinet ruptured three ways and MPs inflicted two more defeats on the government to demand no deal be taken off the table permanently.
In an unprecedented night of Tory splits, four cabinet ministers – Amber Rudd, David Mundell, David Gauke and Greg Clark – defied their party’s last-minute whip and refused to vote against the government’s own motion after it was amended to rule out any prospect of no-deal Brexit.
Six other cabinet ministers also splintered to back a separate proposal for a “managed no deal”, despite the prime minister’s warning that the plan was doomed.
After her defeat May signalled that she would gamble one last time on forcing through her Brexit deal, bringing forward a motion today on delaying Brexit that would “set out the fundamental choice” facing the house.
If MPs agreed a deal, she said the government would request a “short, technical extension” to article 50, a hint May plans a third meaningful vote next week.
Without an agreed deal, she said there would be a “much longer extension” that would require the UK to take part in European parliament elections. “I do not think that would be the right outcome,” May said.
In a defiant reply, Steve Baker, the vice-chair of the European Research Group of hard Brexiters, said Eurosceptics would not be cowed: “I’ll say to the government now, when meaningful vote three comes back I will see to it that we keep voting this down however many times it’s brought back.
“Whatever pressure we’re put under and come what may, please don’t do it, keep going back to the EU and say: ‘It wont pass’.”
Other Tory rebels sounded far less certain. The MP Simon Clarke said there was “a gun to my head at this point” and suggested he could back the deal next time. “I think voters will appreciate we have a very, very limited range of options left if we want to actually honour the manifesto commitment to leave at all. Now it’s effectively a bad Brexit deal or no Brexit at all, which is absolutely ghastly.”
May’s warning of an extended Brexit delay followed a disastrous night in parliament for the government. MPs amended May’s motion ruling out no deal on 29 March to a much more radical proposition, ruling out no deal altogether.
That amendment, originally proposed by the Tory backbencher Caroline Spelman but brought to a vote by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, passed by four votes. After a frantic conference on the floor of the Commons, panicking whips demanded Tory MPs now voted against the government’s own amended motion – but were still resoundingly defeated by a majority of 43. The Home Office minister Sarah Newton resigned in
order to vote in favour of the amended motion and a slew of other ministers also abstained, including the energy minister Clare Perry, the solicitor general, Robert Buckland, the defence minister Tobias Ellwood, the business minister Richard Harrington, the digital minister Margot James and the foreign minister Alistair Burt.
Sources indicated last night that cabinet ministers who abstained did not intend to proactively resign and Downing Street said they would not be pushed.
Mundell, the Scotland secretary, said he could not in conscience have opposed the amendment. “I’ve always opposed a no-deal Brexit. The house made its view clear by agreeing the Spelman amendment, I didn’t think it was right for me to oppose that,” he said. “The PM has my full support in her objective of leaving the EU with a deal to deliver an orderly Brexit.”
The amendment that ruled out any prospect of no deal was initially proposed by the Conservative MP Caroline Spelman, but remainer cabinet ministers urged their colleagues not to back the moves, believing a thumping victory for the government motion would send a strong signal to Eurosceptics.
An alarmed Spelman then tried to withdraw her amendment but was barred by the Speaker, John Bercow, who said the amendment could be moved by other supportive MPs. Cooper moved the amendment instead and the government was defeated by four votes. The vote does not definitively preclude a no-deal Brexit – MPs must still agree a deal, or extend or revoke article 50 in order to do that – but it underlined both the strength of feeling at Westminster and the government’s loss of control.
May’s warning about a potentially lengthy delay to Brexit came as it emerged the DUP was back in talks with senior government figures about what it would take for them to back May’s deal at a third Commons vote. A party source told the Guardian that “channels are open” with the party.
Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Guardian’s Today in Focus that his opposition to the government deal was “not a cunning plan to get us to no deal by default” and said he could vote for the deal if it was backed by the DUP.
Discussions are taking place around a point that Rees-Mogg, the ERG chair, raised in the Commons before Tuesday’s vote, relating to “how article 62 of the Vienna convention could be used”. Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, replied that the UK would have the ability to terminate the withdrawal agreement “if the facts clearly warranted that there had been an unforeseen and fundamental change of circumstances”.
An ERG source said this had been written by Cox but had not made it into the final legal advice. “If we’d had it earlier in the day it could have changed the vote,” the source said.
Earlier last night, May was also forced to allow a free vote on an amendment by Tory backbenchers based on the so-called Malthouse compromise that suggested a 21-month transition to no deal.
The amendment was comfortably defeated by Conservative MPs and opposition parties, 374 votes to 164, but the vote drove an even deeper wedge into May’s fracturing cabinet.
Six ministers voted in favour of the proposal, Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid and Alun Cairns – many of them tipped as future leadership candidates. In the aftermath of the vote, Brussels warned that the Commons blocking a no deal was meaningless, with a senior EU negotiator describing it as “the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way”.
An EU commission spokesman said it was “not enough to vote against no deal – you have to agree to a deal … We have agreed a deal with the prime minister and the EU is ready to sign it.”
Throughout yet another neuralgic day of Brexit debate at Westminster yesterday, the deep divisions in the Tory party were once again on excruciating display. Collective responsibility has long been suspended, as shifting groups of ministers and backbenchers pursue their own favoured Brexit outcome. But last night’s chaotic votes smacked of a government falling apart.
First, six cabinet ministers including Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Alun Cairns, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid – most notable for their leadership ambitions – supported the Malthouse compromise, a policy that would involve junking the deal their own government has spent two years negotiating.
And then a separate group of cabinet ministers, David Mundell, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke, abstained in the face of a three-line whip, rather than vote against the amended motion taking a no-deal Brexit off the table.
Sources close to the group later claimed that when ministers gathered shortly before the votes, for an informal cabinet meeting, neither the chief whip, Julian Smith, nor May herself were aware of the risk of a defeat.
The ERG’s Jacob Rees-Mogg later called for the abstainers to resign or be sacked. “Collective responsibility requires ministers to support government policy or to resign. It is a basic constitutional point,” he said.
Several more junior ministers opted to vote for the motion, in defiance of the whips. One, Sarah Newton, a junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, immediately resigned.
A grim-faced Smith was spotted shortly afterwards on the corridor next to the whips’ office, consulting with May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.
The PM’s chief Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins – who let slip in a Brussels bar her plan of presenting MPs with the alternative of backing her deal or facing a long delay to Brexit – was seen leaving parliament 45 minutes after the vote.
The language of both sides has become increasingly strident, as
the deadline for leaving the EU has approached. One MP during Tuesday’s debate described the prime minister’s deal as a “turd”.
The Brexiter Bernard Jenkin responded to yesterday’s fresh humiliation for the government by blaming “anti-Brexit MPs”, and calling it “a sad day for democracy”.
Mark Francois, one of the cabal of Brexiter backbenchers who have made themselves freely available to comment on the prime minister’s travails in recent days, insisted on Sky News, “I was in the army: I’m not trained to lose”.
Ben Bradley, the Brexiter MP for Mansfield, who voted for May’s deal, said: “We have just betrayed the promise we made to the electorate. I am angry, quite emotional to be honest. It is incredibly difficult to justify that we said we were going to leave on the 29th. Parliament just said we are not going to leave, effectively. I think tomorrow we will vote to extend article 50.”
“The trust in government is evaporating. We have got to the point where If cabinet ministers can’t vote for a long-term government position on Brexit on a three-line whip they have to go, frankly. If May doesn’t [sack them] I think we are in total free fall.”
Despite the thumping defeat of the Malthouse gambit, which was rejected by a majority of 210 votes, the ERG’s lieutenants appeared unbowed, with Steve Baker urging the prime minister not to bring back her deal for a third meaningful vote in the coming days.
One ERG MP, Andrew Bridgen, said May could still ignore parliament, and pursue a no-deal Brexit. On the ministers who abstained, he said May “should have sacked them weeks ago”.
Also clearly evident as yesterday unfolded was the horror with which some Conservative MPs view the damage inflict on the reputation of their own party by the Brexit crisis.
Junior minister Sam Gyimah asked the environment secretary, Michael Gove, who wound up the debate for the government: “Given that those of us on the government benches know that the success of our party and our country is based on backing the job creators and the wealth creators, how does he think the Conservative party of the 1980s would look at our response to business at the moment?”
When David Cameron suspended collective cabinet responsibility at the start of the EU referendum campaign, he fondly imagined his colleagues could all be brought back together again a few weeks’ later. But almost three years on, the bitter divisions opened up then have solidified – and the result has been Tory civil war.
‘Trust in government is evaporating. If May doesn’t [sack abstaining ministers] we are in freefall’
Conservative Brexiter MP
▲ The prime minister at the dispatch box yesterday. She was once more humiliated by MPs in a Brexit vote
Theresa May makes her case to MPs – and a divided Tory party – in the House of Commons yesterday