Working to make government more effective


The battle for control of Brexit

The pitched battle over the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment is a battle between two Conservative factions to get the Brexit they want.

The pitched battle over the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment is a battle between two Conservative factions to get the Brexit they want without risking a general election, argues Jill Rutter.

Tom Tugendhat and Jacob Rees-Mogg have both argued that the Commons will have a ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit – and that ‘meaningful vote’ is the Commons’ ability to pull the rug from under the Government through a confidence vote if it doesn’t like the package the Prime Minister brings back from Brussels in the autumn.

But they know that that is tantamount to asking their Remainer colleagues to press a nuclear button – to be prepared to countenance either a Corbyn government or UK exit with no deal as the price for rejecting a deal they dislike. It is that Hobson’s choice that Dominic Grieve and his allies are trying to avoid through their amendment to give Parliament more control of the Brexit end-game.

The amendment Grieve proposed is a way of allowing the – probably ‘softer Brexit’ – parliamentary majority to crystallise while allowing the Government to go on governing. It is designed to ensure that Parliament is not just a bystander in the event of 'no deal' – something the Government has long appeared prepared to envisage. And it is designed to give the (former) Remainers – and Parliament – an alternative to the binary choice they feared they would be offered: our deal or no deal.

While Dominic Grieve is keen to insert Parliament into the process, the Brexiteers are not. Grieve thinks he has the votes for a deal (rather than a no deal) and a softer Brexit if Parliament doesn’t like the hardest edges on the Prime Minister’s offering.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, however, knows that its real power is in the Conservative Party – and in particular, the threat it poses to Theresa May’s continued leadership. It has the numbers to trigger a leadership contest, and wants to be able to use these to continue to exert that backdoor influence on Brexit. If it thought it had the votes for its type of Brexit, it would be less fussed about the prospect of Parliament’s involvement.

It remains to be seen whether the Government has the numbers to overturn the Grieve amendment when it comes back, as seems likely, from the Lords on Wednesday; and whether yesterday’s antics have stiffened the resolve (and increased the number) of those prepared to rebel.

What looks like a high-minded battle over the role of Parliament in international negotiations – David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, argued on Tuesday that the amendments giving Parliament a power to direct were “unconstitutional” – is in reality a political dogfight over which part of the Conservative Party is the Prime Minister’s backseat driver in the next phase of the Brexit negotiations.

Related content