Theresa May is facing a Tory revolt over her efforts to fix the date of Brexit on 29 March 2019, with former attorney general Dominic Grieve saying he would vote against the amendment regardless of “blood-curdling threats” and “arm twisting” from Conservative whips.
On the first of eight days of debate on the European Union withdrawal bill’s committee stage, the former attorney general was one of several Tory MPs to express their opposition to the move and up to 15 could revolt over the issue when it comes to a vote in the coming weeks.
Grieve, the ringleader of the rebellion, described Brexit as an “extraordinarily painful process of national self-mutilation” as he warned that he would not be ordered to vote against his conscience.
He was supported in the Commons by MPs including Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan, Bob Neill and Anna Soubry.
The rebels are already among up to 20 Conservatives planning to vote against the government on several issues, from use of Henry VIII powers to securing a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal, unless the government makes concessions.
However, No 10’s attempts to fix the date of leaving the EU opened up a new battle, with May potentially reliant on Brexit-supporting Labour MPs to pass her amendment.
Grieve said there could be some room for compromise on most issues in the coming weeks but the efforts to find consensus were undermined by the government’s “mad” amendment to ensure the EU exit date is fixed at 11pm on 29 March.
He said it was tabled “without any collective decision-making within government … and accompanied by I think blood-curdling threats that anybody that might stand in its way was in some way betraying the country’s destiny and mission, and I am afraid I am just not prepared to go along with that”.
Grieve said he will “vote against it, no ifs, no buts, no maybes about this, no arm twisting” and pledged he would do so if he was the only person in the voting lobby.
Some of his colleagues, including former cabinet minister Morgan, shouted “you won’t be”, indicating they would join him in rejecting the timetable.
The Brexit date amendment was unexpectedly published on Friday but MPs will not get the opportunity to vote on it until much later in the eight days of debate on the withdrawal bill, which are expected to be spread over at least a month.
Clarke, the veteran pro-EU Tory MP, agreed with Grieve that fixing the date of Brexit was “not just ridiculous and unnecessary but it could be positively harmful to the national interest”.
He got an unusual round of applause from some MPs, who are not supposed to clap, for urging the government to reject its own “silly amendments thrown out because they got a good article in the Daily Telegraph”.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said Labour would vote against the government’s amendment, which he dismissed as a “gimmick”.
However, the idea was supported by Frank Field, a senior Labour MP and Brexit supporter, who proposed an exit date of 30 March 2019, an hour later than the government’s amendment of 11pm on 29 March 2019.
Field said this represented “a little freedom” by ensuring that the UK rather than the EU sets the time for Brexit.
Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory Brexit supporter, also argued that fixing the date was essential to avoid the impression that the UK could be playing for extra time to strike a deal.
“What this amendment does is rumbles those who have not really accepted that we’re leaving the European Union.”
Anna Soubry, a former Conservative minister, could be heard behind him saying: “You disgrace, Bernard. You’re a disgrace.”
She also hit out at a forthcoming front page article by the Telegraph, for its edition of Wednesday 15 November, listing 15 Tory MPs as “Brexit mutineers”. This, she said, was a “blatant piece of bullying”.
Steve Baker, a Brexit minister, was quick to stand up for the Conservative rebels’ right to seek improvements to the bill, saying he regretted any media attempts to divide his party.
The government was not at risk of losing votes on the first day of the debate, as it defeated a Plaid Cymru amendment to give Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a veto over Brexit by majority of 318 votes to 52. It then won a vote endorsing a clause in the bill to repeal the European Communities Act by 318 votes to 68.
However, it only defeated a Labour amendment on how the transitional period will work and an SNP amendment seeking to ensure courts pay regard to European court of justice (ECJ) decisions by 20 votes each time, underlining the slimness of May’s majority.
Her battle with her backbenchers comes against a backdrop of growing concern in Downing Street about lack of progress in the Brexit talks.
The government still hopes the EU27 will agree to move on to the next stage of the negotiations – on Britain’s future relationship – in December.
But the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) believes the position of Brussels has hardened considerably in recent months, particularly on the issue of financial settlement.
David Davis and his colleagues had expected the EU27 to accept agreement on the broad framework for calculating the Brexit divorce bill as the “sufficient progress” it has demanded.
But the EU has made clear it does not regard May’s promise to honour the UK’s financial commitments as sufficient.
The EU is seeking a detailed breakdown of the financial liabilities the UK will accept – something Davis remains unwilling to offer.
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