David Davis has promised to introduce legislation to parliament that will allow MPs to vote on the final Brexit deal but the concession was not enough to kill off a potential rebellion from Conservative backbenchers.
The Brexit secretary announced the move in the Commons after it became clear that the government could face defeat on an amendment laid down by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve that calls for a meaningful vote.
“It is clear that we need to take further steps to provide clarity and certainty both in the negotiations and at home regarding the implementation of any agreement into United Kingdom law,” said Davis, outlining the plans for the withdrawal agreement to be subject to primary legislation. “This agreement will only hold if parliament approves it.”
Davis’s offer amounted to verbal assurance that parliament would be able to vote on the withdrawal agreement, covering issues such as citizen rights, the financial settlement and transitional arrangements, but would not include a future trade deal. He also added that it could not be used to undo Brexit.
Grieve welcomed the offer but said that a verbal reassurance from ministers was not adequate, and confirmed that his amendment would remain in place for the time being. It is due to be voted on in the coming weeks as the existing EU withdrawal bill goes through its committee stage, although a firm date has not yet been set.
His Conservative colleague Anna Soubry confirmed that she and others were still ready to rebel, arguing that Davis’s announcement would not give politicians any say in a “no deal” scenario, under which the government failed to reach an agreement with the EU.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, called the announcement a “significant climbdown from a weak government on the verge of defeat” but added the detail would be critical, while some Labour backbenchers went further, dismissing the move as a “sham” and a “fake meaningful vote”.
Opponents of the government pointed out that MPs were not being given the power to send ministers back to the negotiating table in Brussels if they were unhappy with the deal. They said the offer amounted to a take-it-or-leave-it vote for parliament, under which the alternative would mean crashing out without any agreement.
The prominent Brexiter Owen Paterson asked Davis for reassurance that the UK would leave the EU on 29 March 2019 even if parliament rejected the final deal in the debate on the proposed bill. The Brexit secretary replied: “Yes.”
Davis also repeatedly made clear to MPs that politicians would not be able to slow or reverse the Brexit process simply by amending the proposed bill. Brexit-supporting MPs, including Suella Fernandes – chair of the Tories’ European Research Group, had asked for assurances the bill could not used to undo the process.
Sources added there would be no chance of reopening negotiations off the back of any amendments to the proposed bill and claimed the EU would not accept any changes at that stage.
Davis said his “principal policy aim” was for the EU deal to be ready by October, 2018, giving time for MPs to scrutinise and debate it before 29 March 2019, but he would not guarantee that to be the case. Some MPs said they feared the proposed vote for MPs could be delayed until after Brexit had already taken place.
Grieve welcomed the concession but told the Guardian that verbal assurances were not enough to fully placate potential rebels.
“I welcome the announcement today that parliament will be asked to approve any withdrawal agreement by statute but it remains the case that the bill as drafted does not reflect what the government is now promising – and the bill will therefore have to be changed to meet the government’s promise,” he said.
“I hope that my amendment won’t be necessary but it will remain there to be debated and if necessary voted on.”
The Tory rebel also criticised the government for putting forward what he called an “extraordinary amendment” last week under which the date of Brexit – 29 March 2019 – would be written on the face of the EU withdrawal bill. Grieve said that would tie the hands of ministers by taking away any possibility of extending article 50 in an emergency.
Soubry added that incorporating the date into the bill meant MPs would have “no say” if the government failed to negotiate a deal in the timeframe on offer.
Davis responded that the need for unanimity from 27 other EU countries to extend the timeline meant doing so was an unlikely option.
Soubry told the Guardian that she believed that the government was “preparing for a hard Brexit – no deal”, adding that she would still back Grieve’s amendment and was ready to rebel on the issue of the exit day.
The Labour MP Chris Leslie, who has laid down a number of amendments to the EU withdrawal bill being debated in the House of Commons on Tuesday, said he thought ministers would still face a rough ride.
“David Davis was clearly trying to stave off rebellions but nobody seems to be buying it. It is quite clearly a con trick. Giving parliament a vote after the deal is signed and done is worthless,” he said. “It is clear that MPs should be able to shape the deal before it is signed and sealed.”
His colleague, Chuka Umunna, said the move did not preclude Britain crashing out without a deal. “It is not a big concession ... He calls it a meaningful vote, it is a fake one,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Brexit secretary has been forced to deny reports that he was furious at his cabinet colleagues Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, after they formed an alliance to write to the prime minister about fears of “insufficient energy” in parts of government over Brexit.
The Times reported the claims, quoting an unnamed ally of Davis. His spokesman hit back. “This is flat wrong. How cabinet colleagues interact with each other is up to them and David Davis defended Boris when given the chance on Sunday.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will say in a speech on Tuesday when the EU withdrawal bill returns to the Commons, that it is an undemocratic government power grab.
“Nearly 17 months since Britain voted to leave the EU, we are still none the wiser as to what our future relationship with our biggest trading partners is going to look like,” he will say. “The government can’t give a lead because the cabinet is split down the middle. Ministers spend more time negotiating with each other than with the EU. That gives the whip hand to grandstanding EU politicians.”
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