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Tory rebellion back on after MPs reject May's Brexit amendment

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/06/2018 Heather Stewart and Anne Perkins
Theresa May is heading for another confrontation with her MPs. © Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA Theresa May is heading for another confrontation with her MPs.

Theresa May is heading for a fresh confrontation with Conservative rebels next week after they rejected a government-drafted amendment to the EU withdrawal bill.

The former attorney general Dominic Grieve held talks with the government over the precise wording of the clause, which was aimed at making it more difficult for the government to take Britain out of the EU with no deal without consulting MPs.

Dominic Grieve says government’s wording over MPs’ ‘meaningful’ vote is unacceptable © Reuters Dominic Grieve says government’s wording over MPs’ ‘meaningful’ vote is unacceptable

Instead of the contested clause 5C, which the rebels believed May had given them a personal assurance she would discuss, the new amendment promises a debate on a motion “in neutral terms”, in the event of no Brexit deal being reached by the end of January next year.

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Grieve, who tabled the original amendment, said the new version was “unacceptable”, because this phrase meant it was impossible for MPs to amend the government’s proposals.

“It is unacceptable. At the end of the process something was inexplicably changed, which had not been agreed. The government has made the motion unamendable, contrary to the usual methods of the House of Commons and therefore it cannot be accepted,” he said.

Anna Soubry, who rejected the prime minister’s assurances and voted against the government earlier this week – unlike more than a dozen of her colleagues – suggested the amendment had been tabled “without consultation”, after the rebels believed they had a deal.

Another rebel, Sarah Wollaston, said she and her allies would now need to, “amend the ‘unamendable’”.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said: “The government’s amendment is simply not good enough. Theresa May has gone back on her word and offered an amendment that takes the meaning out of the meaningful vote. Parliament cannot – and should not – accept it.”

Rebel Conservative peers are now expected to re-table Grieve’s amendment, to force the issue in the Lords, where the bill is due to be debated on Monday. It is then expected to bounce back to the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May hosts a round table meeting on technology at 10 Downing Street in London, June 13, 2018. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via Reuters © Reuters Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May hosts a round table meeting on technology at 10 Downing Street in London, June 13, 2018. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via Reuters

The issue was at the heart of a knife-edge vote on Tuesday, which saw more than a dozen MPs, including Nicky Morgan and Ed Vaizey, called into the prime minister’s office to be given last-minute reassurances their concerns would be addressed.

Some Conservative MPs are sceptical about the need for the Grieve amendment. Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, told Sky News he believed it was unnecessary, because if MPs voted against the Brexit deal the government would be likely to fall.

“I think we’re going to get a meaningful vote anyway,” Tugendhat said. “The meaningful vote is going to be either the government’s deal is accepted, in which case that’s the meaningful vote accepted. Or it isn’t accepted. In which case, frankly, there’s going to be a new government.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May returns to Downing Street from the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville © Reuters Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May returns to Downing Street from the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

However, Grieve and his backers – including Starmer – believe they need to ensure there will be a formal process in place.

The EU (withdrawal) bill, which is making its painstaking way through parliament, will return to the Lords on Monday. It will then go back to the Commons, in a parliamentary process known as “ping pong”.

Theresa May is trying to press ahead with the legislation needed to enact Brexit but, in a hung parliament, she must strike a delicate balance between rebels on both wings of her parliamentary party.

Two more contentious bills – on trade and customs – are set to be debated before parliament breaks off for its summer recess, and pro-EU rebels are poised for a series of fresh confrontations, including over membership of the customs union.

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