The future of Brexit was in the balance last night after Theresa May suffered a dramatic triple defeat in the Commons.
Amid extraordinary scenes, 26 Tory rebels sided with Labour to push through an amendment that would let MPs step in if her deal is defeated next week.
It could even halt the Brexit process completely. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, led the rebellion which effectively takes a no-deal exit off the table. He claimed it could lead to a second referendum, adding: ‘MPs are tonight starting the process of taking back control.’
The Prime Minister also suffered a humiliating defeat over her bid to keep the Government’s legal advice on the EU withdrawal agreement under wraps. Her administration is the first in modern history to be found in contempt of Parliament.
Theresa May (pictured leaving Downing Street today) suffered three humiliating defeats on Brexit tonight in the worst hour for a sitting Prime Minister in 40 years
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer (pictured in the Commons today) said the Government had suffered an unprecedented defeat and demanded that the legal advice is published quickly
And in the blackest night for Tory whips since the dying days of John Major’s government, a separate bid to kick the issue into the long grass was also defeated.
Last night, Mrs May tried to keep her plan alive with a rousing speech to the Commons, in which she warned ‘Brexit could be stopped’ entirely if it is voted down on Tuesday.
She acknowledged criticism of her ‘compromise’ deal, but said: ‘We should not let the search for the perfect Brexit prevent a good Brexit that delivers for the British people.
‘And we should not contemplate a course that fails to respect the result of the referendum, because it would decimate the trust of millions of people in our politics for a generation.’
Downing Street must now hope that the threat of Parliament blocking a no-deal Brexit convinces some Eurosceptic opponents of her deal to change their minds before the meaningful vote. However, a number of high profile, and previously loyal, Tory MPs rebelled during the series of defeats last night – including Michael Fallon and Damian Green.
And in a clear indication that the Prime Minister’s ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the DUP is fractured beyond repair, the Northern Irish party warned her it did not fear another election.
Downing Street had hoped the threat of a general election would bring the DUP to heel, because it could bring the pro-Nationalist Jeremy Corbyn to power.
But the party voted against the Government last night, with Nigel Dodds, the party’s Westminster leader, telling Mrs May his party was ready to spark another poll. He added: ‘I’m certain we will be returned in greater numbers.’
Theresa May (pictured in the Commons today) suffered a string of humiliating defeats on Brexit tonight – dealing her authority a major blow just seven days before her deal is voted on
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (pictured in the Commons today) had faced the prospect of being suspended from parliament after he refused to publish the legal advice
In other developments:
- The PM promised to listen to Tory MPs worried about the so-called Irish backstop, saying she would ‘consider how we can go further’ to reassure it will not leave the UK in a customs union in the long term;
- Mrs May also offered to give MPs a ‘more formal role’ in steering the trade talks with the EU after the UK has left next year;
- Tory shop steward Sir Graham Brady said he accepted the need for compromise, but urged Mrs May ‘in the strongest possible terms’ to identify a clear route out of the backstop;
- Boris Johnson was heckled by moderate Tories as he attacked Mrs May’s plan and urged MPs to vote against it next week;
- Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted next week’s crunch vote would be close and dismissed ‘ridiculously inflated’ claims about the scale of the rebellion;
- A senior Toyota executive warned a no-deal Brexit could result in ‘stop-start production’ for weeks or months at its UK plant;
- Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned such a course could result in food prices rising by 10 per cent;
- The European Court of Justice’s senior lawyer said Article 50, which started the Brexit process, could be revoked unilaterally by the UK;
- The BBC dropped plans for a televised Brexit showdown involving Mrs May and Mr Corbyn on Sunday night;
- Brexiteer Cabinet minister Chris Grayling publicly backed Mrs May’s deal for the first time.
Geoffrey Cox (pictured in the Commons today) had issued a robust defence of the Government’s refusal to publish the full advice at at the despatch box yesterday
Q&A on the latest Brexit developments
By Jack Doyle
What happened yesterday?
The Government lost three votes in a day, the first time that has happened since 1996 – an ominous date for the Tory Party which went on to face catastrophic electoral defeat the following year. The first two were on the Brexit legal advice given to Cabinet by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
They were damaging, but not disastrous. The third, which is potentially much more significant, was on an amendment, proposed by leading Remainer Tory rebel Dominic Grieve, setting out what could happen if Theresa May’s deal is voted down next week. It could, in theory, give MPs vast leverage over the next steps on Brexit.
Why is the legal advice vote significant?
Last month the Commons demanded the full legal advice be published. Ministers refused. Yesterday MPs voted to declare this decision a contempt of Parliament – a serious form of legal admonishment.
To avoid the prospect of ministers being suspended by the House, the Government rolled over and agreed to release the document today. No 10 fought tooth and nail to resist publishing, warning to do so would be ‘against the national interest’ and breach historic conventions. To placate MPs, Mr Cox made a statement to Parliament describing what it said and published a summary.
Much of the document will be familiar, but it will make plain the gravity of Mr Cox’s warnings about the UK being trapped in the Northern Ireland backstop, potentially hardening opposition to the deal among rebel Tory MPs.
What does the Grieve amendment mean?
Following an earlier row this summer, Mr Grieve won a concession that if the deal falls, the Government will have to come back to the Commons within three weeks to set out what course it will then take.
As a result of yesterday’s vote, MPs will now be able to propose what alternative course of action the Government should take by making amendments to the motion and voting on them.
Almost inevitably, the likely proposals will include the UK staying in a permanent customs union, or membership of the single market, or both – or a second referendum.
For its supporters, this makes ‘no deal’ impossible as the Commons – which is overwhelmingly opposed to crashing out – would immediately make clear its disapproval. Some hardline Brexiteers deny this, arguing that any amendment would not be legally binding on the Prime Minister. In theory this is true, but any such vote would heap huge political pressure on the Government to comply.
Where does this all leave us?
With nearly 100 MPs publicly expressing their doubts about the deal, its chances of passing on Tuesday already appeared slim. Losing a string of votes exposes just how weak Mrs May’s grip on a fractious and volatile Parliament has become. With this in mind, the Grieve amendment could be hugely significant.
If it is seen to reduce the chances of a no-deal Brexit, could it yet convince hardline Eurosceptic rebels they should back Mrs May’s deal?
Or will they press on, with the danger that the future of Brexit falls into the hands of a Remain-dominated Parliament which is flexing its muscles more every day and could yet find a way to sink Brexit altogether?
In her speech last night the PM admitted that both Remainers and Brexiteers have been left dissatisfied by parts of her deal.
But she said the ‘hard truth’ is that the compromise she has thrashed out with Brussels is the only deal which delivers on the historic vote and protects jobs.
She said: ‘I know there are some in this House and in the country who would prefer a closer relationship with the European Union than the one I’m proposing, indeed who would prefer the relationship that we currently have and want another referendum.
Who are the 26 Tory rebels who voted for Dominic Grieve’s amendment?
Here are the 26 Tory rebels who voted for Dominic Grieve’s amendment which allows MPs to tell the Government what to do in Brexit talks if the PM’s deal is voted down
- Heidi Allen
- Guto Bebb
- Richard Benyon
- Kenneth Clarke
- Jonathan Djanogly
- Michael Fallon
- George Freeman
- Richard Graham
- Damian Green
- Justine Greening
- Dominic Grieve
- Sir Oliver Heald
- Jo Johnson
- Phillip Lee
- Jeremy Lefroy
- Sir Oliver Letwin
- Nicky Morgan
- Bob Neill
- Antoinette Sandbach
- Sir Nicholas Soames
- Anna Soubry
- John Stevenson
- Derek Thomas
- Ed Vaizey
- Sarah Wollaston
‘Although I profoundly disagree, they are arguing for what they believe is right for our country and I respect that.
‘But the hard truth is that we will not settle this issue and bring our country together that way and I ask them to think what it would say to the 52 per cent who came out to vote Leave, in many cases for the first time in decades, if their decision were ignored.’
The PM added: ‘There are others in this House who would prefer a more distant relationship than the one I’m proposing and although I don’t agree, I know they’re also arguing for what they think is best for our future and I respect that too.
‘But the hard truth is also that we will not settle this issue and bring our country together if in delivering Brexit we do not protect the trade and security cooperation on which so many jobs and lives depend, completely ignoring the views of the 48 per cent.
Mrs May said the ‘only solution that will endure’ is one that addresses the concerns of both sides of the debate.
But she faced a fiery Commons session as leading Brexiteers lashed her plan, while the DUP – who are propping the Tories up in No10 – said they would be happy to have another general election.
Boris Johnson, who has become the PM’s fiercest critic since quitting as Foreign Secretary over her Brexit plan, said the deal is a failure.
He told the Commons: ‘I can’t believe there is a single member of this House who sincerely believes that this is a good deal for the UK.
‘You can tell that the government’s hearts are not in it
‘You can tell that they know it is a disaster because after two and a half years this deal has done an amazing thing it has brought us together – remainers and leavers in the belief that it is a national humiliation that makes a mockery of Brexit.
‘There will be no proper free trade deals. We will not take back control of our laws and for the government to continue to suggest otherwise is to do violence to the normal meaning of words.
‘We will give up £39bn for nothing. We will not really be taking back control of our borders.’
While Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader has said he would be ‘happy’ to have another general election to prove the party has support in Northern Ireland for blocking the PM’s Brexit deal.
Mark Carney admits his doomsday scenario for a no-deal Brexit meltdown is unlikely
Mark Carney today admitted his doomsday scenario for a no-deal Brexit meltdown would be unlikely to come to pass.
The Bank of England governor said the catastrophic consequences he laid out for a chaotic departure from the bloc – including a deep recession, plunging Pound and spiking unemployment – were a ‘tail risk’.
But he also doubled down on the warnings by saying prices of family shopping could rise by 10 per cent – and 6 per cent even if there is an orderly departure.
And he delivered a withering verdict on the Norway-style option backed by some Remainers, saying it was ‘highly undesirable’ for the UK.
The comments came as Mr Carney gave evidence to MPs on the Treasury Committee.
Mr Carney refused to give percentage ‘confidence bands’ for the different scenarios the Bank set out in its dire warnings last week – saying that the committee was better placed to judge how Brexit would pan out.
He said: ‘We will happily go to the electorate and put our views to the people if needs be, and I’m quite certain we would be returned in greater numbers than today.’
A slew of MPs had condemned ministers for refusing to release the full Brexit deal legal advice in a fiery Commons showdown today.
It had pitted Mrs May’s authority and support against the accumulated strength of her opposition – which spanned both Brexiteers and Remainers.
But admitting defeat and announcing the legal advice will be published tomorrow, Mrs Leadsom said: ‘We have tested the opinion of the House twice on this very serious subject…
‘We will publish the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to Cabinet.’
The dramatic row erupted after the Government refused to publish the full legal advice despite losing a vote in the Commons last month requiring them to.
Instead they said published a ‘full reasoned position’ laying out a summary of the legal advice.
But critics accused ministers of keeping secret the most explosive parts of Mr Cox’s advice.
Sir Keir warned that ministers were committing contempt of Parliament and used the arcane parliamentary tactics to heap pressure on No10.
If Mrs May had still refused to publish the legal advice then MPs would have debated how to enforce their contempt motion in a debate tomorrow.
They could have voted to hold specific named minsters responsible and to mete out punishments to them – including suspending them from Parliament.
Cabinet Minister Mrs Leadsom said the Government was defending an important principle that legal advice should stay confidential.
What is in the summary of legal advice on the Brexit deal?
The Government has caved to demands to publish the full legal advice on the Brexit deal after losing an historic vote.
It means fresh details about the legal advice will be published. But this is what we know about the advice so far:
- The Northern Ireland backstop lasts indefinitely ‘unless and until it is superseded’ by ‘alternative arrangements’.
- Agreement on ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border is only possible by joint UK-EU agreement.
- With no agreement, the UK must be able to show ‘clear evidence’ the EU is failing to negotiate in good faith to get a ruling in its favour.
- The UK cannot unilaterally terminate the divorce treaty.
- If transition is extended, the UK will have to pay an ‘appropriate’ amount more into the EU budget. This could run to billions.
- During the transition period, the EU can choose to exclude the UK from ‘security-related sensitive information’ .
- During the transition period, the UK must accept all new EU laws with no say on writing them.
And she warned that while the Government will publish the full legal advice, they are very alarmed at the use of arcane parliamentary procedure to force them to publish secret information.
She said she has written to the Privileges Committee to ask them to investigate the phenomenon.
A government-backed amendment to kill off the attempt to hold Mr Cox in contempt by sending the matter to the Privileges Committee was defeated by 311 votes to 307.
Kicking off the constitutional clash in the the chamber this afternoon, Sir Keir accused ministers of ignoring a ‘binding motion’ passed by the Commons.
‘That is contempt,’ he said.
The standoff between the House and the government is thought to be unprecedented in modern times.
Ministers had insisted legal confidentiality is an important point of principle and revealing the material would hurt the national interest.
Instead they published a 40-plus page assessment of the package thrashed out with Brussels.
Mr Cox, who is the Government’s chief legal adviser, had staunchly defended the decision to withhold the advice in a marathon appearance in the House – telling MPs ‘there is nothing to see here’.
Mr Cox had asked MPs to suppose the advice included details on relationships with foreign states and arguments that might be deployed in the future, noting: ‘Would it be right for the Attorney General, regardless of the harm to the public interest, to divulge his opinion.
‘I say it wouldn’t.’
But MPs are convinced that the most explosive parts of his legal advice has been kept secret.
The Sunday Times said in a letter sent last month to Cabinet ministers, he advised the only way out of the backstop – designed to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic – once it was invoked was to sign a new trade deal, a process which could take years.
‘The protocol would endure indefinitely,’ he apparently wrote.
The letter was said to be so sensitive that ministers were given numbered copies to read which they were not allowed to take from the room afterwards.
How MPs could push for a Brexit ‘plan B’
- The House of Commons passed an amendment making clear that it should be able to direct the government how to respond if the PM loses the crunch vote on her Brexit deal.
- The amendment would allow MPs to table amendments that would reject the government’s plans, and instruct ministers to do something different – such as extending Article 50, opting for a Norway-style deal, holding a second referendum r blocking no deal.
- While not necessarily binding, such an expression of Parliament’s will would have huge political force and might well be impossible to ignore.
In a day of high political drama, Mr Grieve’s amendment to hand power to MPs if the PM’s Brexit deal is voted down next week was passed with the help of over two dozen Tory rebels.
If – as widely expected – the PM fails to get her deal approved she must return to the Commons within 21 days to give a statement on what she will do next.
The amendment allows MPs to amend this motion – effectively giving them the power to tell ministers what to do.
Critics insist that the instructions will not be legally binding, but it would pile so much pressure on ministers it may be politically impossible for them to ignore the demands.
And the BBC confirmed it had dropped plans for the televised Brexit head to head between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn after labour refused to sign up to it.
However, a rare piece of good news for Number 10, Tory Brexiteer and rebel ringleader Jacob Rees-Mogg predicted next week’s crunch vote on the Brexit deal will be far closer than predicted.
Some 100 Tory MPs have indicated they will not back her divorce deal, but Mr Rees-Mogg said predictions this will not translate into a massive rebellion.
He told his weekly ConHome podcast: ‘I think the numbers have got ridiculously inflated I think whatever happens, it will be a close result and I would not rule out the possibility of the Government winning.’
He added: ‘But plus or minus five, I think is where it is likely to end up. Not minus a hundred or any of these silly numbers.’
Theresa May (pictured in Downing Street last night) has vowed to defend the ‘important principle’ that government legal advice is confidential
Commons legal assessment highlights doubt on ‘backstop’
House of Commons lawyers have raised fresh questions about the Irish border backstop in Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
An internal assessment by the House’s EU legislation team highlights that the customs arrangements would be a ‘practical barrier to the UK entering separate trade agreements on goods with third countries’.
It also suggests the Joint Committee to arbitrate over the Withdrawal Agreement could put Britain at a ‘practical disadvantage’.
‘If the Joint Committee is unable to reach a decision, in some circumstances, that will block next steps,’ the note says.
‘The party that wants those next steps to occur, will then be at a practical disadvantage.
‘By way of example, i) the Joint Committee sets the limits of state aid that can be authorised by the UK for agriculture. If limits are not agreed, state aid may not be authorised.’
Downing Street has acknowledged that the backstop would hamper trade deals on goods, but argues that the EU would also be unhappy to keep the arrangements indefinitely.
The PM’s aides insist the country would still be able to do deals on services.