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

The Guardian - - Front Page - Jes­sica El­got Rowena Ma­son Heather Ste­wart

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’

Ben Bradley

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


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