QUENTIN LETTS: Theresa May looked like brown bread during Trade Bill vote

Brexit lives! And on limps Mrs May, Lord help us. An afternoon of terrific, lemon-sucking tension burst at 6.42pm. That was when Tory Whip Kelly Tolhurst, who has a stomping, bowlegged, barmaid’s sort of gait, walked to the front of the Commons Table and barged her Labour counterpart out of the way. She did so in an amiable way, I stress, but she shooed the Labour man to the side of the Table traditionally occupied by the losing side in a division.

The Chamber did not have to wait for the announcement of the result (301 votes defeated by 307). As soon as it saw that choreography at the Table, it knew the result. Cue a cheer of raw relief from the Government side and a look of pale satisfaction from Tory Chief Whip Julian Smith. His heart beat must have been galloping as fast as a whippet’s paws.

Through the closing hour of the Trade Bill debate there had been increasingly frantic activity as Government Whips communicated with the pro-Brussels Tories. These rebels were mostly sitting in the top right of the House, grouped together to give one another courage.

Through the closing hour of the Trade Bill debate there had been increasingly frantic activity as Government Whips, including Kelly Tolhurst, communicated with the pro-Brussels Tories

Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) was, as ever, their swami, the great Buddha to whom they all genuflected. But the man actually putting the dangerous amendment yesterday was Stephen Hammond from Wimbledon – once Theresa May’s home patch. This Hammond is not to be confused with the other Hammond, who is Chancellor, but their politics are not that different.

In a speech that bordered on the aggressive, this Hammond wanted post-Brexit Britain to be part of a customs union with Europe. Hang on, had the Tory party manifesto, on which he stood, not ruled that out? Mr Hammond explained that the manifesto had ruled out ‘the Customs Union’ but not ‘a customs union’. He conceded that this was ‘a slight deviation in definition’ – ha! Slight enough to accommodate his conscience, plainly.

Such a customs union, he claimed, ‘absolutely does not affect your ability to do international trade’. Not everyone agrees with that claim.

Another who appeared to think nothing of his party’s manifesto was Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe), red in the the chops as he foghorned, ‘I can’t see why we’re leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market’. He claimed that the Government was ‘terrified’ of Eurosceptic MPs – yet very few of those sceptics were taking part in the debate. They were keeping a polite distance.

Brexit lives! And on limps Mrs May, Lord help us, says Quentin Letts

Brexit lives! And on limps Mrs May, Lord help us, says Quentin Letts

Around Mr Hammond, crouching forward in their seats, sat Anna Soubry (Broxtowe), Heidi Allen (S Cambs), Nicky Morgan (Loughborough), Antoniette Sandbach (Eddisbury) and Philip Lee (Bracknell). Miss Soubry scuttled over to talk to Guto Bebb (Con, Aberconwy), a Europhile who recently quit as Defence minister.

Dr Lee said that Monday (when the Government bent towards the Eurosceptics) had been ‘the worst experience I have had in politics in eight years’. He said he had contemplated supporting Mrs May until that point. As Dr Lee sat down he smiled. It looked as though the rebels had the numbers and the suicidal intent. Things felt terrible for the absent Mrs May.

At 5.52pm, Deputy Chief Whip Christopher Pincher appeared through a side door and summoned outside Mr Hammond, and then Miss Soubry. Three minutes later, Mr Hammond was back in the Chamber, passing on information to his colleagues. Ms Allen threw her raven hair from side to side, and now leaned down so close to Mr Grieve’s cheek, she could have brushed it with her peachy own.

Mr Smith now came shimmering through the side door and made circular gestures to the rebels, like a hotel manager trying to placate troublesome guests, wanting to check that their new rooms were to their satisfaction. Yet still the rebels seemed disinclined to accept the Government’s word. Mrs May looked Hovis – brown bread, a goner. With it possibly Brexit. Could Parliament really be defying the will of the People?

It would be another 42 minutes, when Miss Tolhurst shouldered into her place, before we knew that the Government, and the democratic choice, had narrowly prevailed. 

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