Conservative rebels inflicted a humiliating defeat on Theresa May in the House of Commons as they backed an amendment to her flagship European Union withdrawal bill over parliament’s right to a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal.
As the prime minister prepared to meet her fellow EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday, a series of last minute concessions by ministers and intense pressure from Tory whips failed to deter 11 of the government’s MPs from voting against the leadership.
Backers of amendment seven, tabled by former attorney-general Dominic Grieve, included former education secretary Nicky Morgan, former business minister Anna Soubry, and Cambridge MP Heidi Allen.
MPs cheered and waved their order papers as the result of the crucial vote was read out, revealing the government had lost by 309 votes to 305: May’s first Commons defeat over Brexit.
Grieve’s amendment had the effect of limiting ministers’ power to make sweeping changes to the law before parliament has approved the Brexit deal.
The victory heartened proponents of a soft Brexit, who hope that over time they can use May’s narrow working majority in the Commons to shift government policy towards a closer ongoing relationship with the EU.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the result as “a humiliating loss of authority for the government on the eve of the European Council meeting”.
He added: “Theresa May has resisted democratic accountability. Her refusal to listen means she will now have to accept parliament taking back control.”
A government spokesman insisted: “We are as clear as ever that this bill, and the powers within it, are essential. This amendment does not prevent us from preparing our statute book for exit day. We will now determine whether further changes are needed to the Bill to ensure it fulfils its vital purpose.”
Brexit secretary David Davis tabled a written statement on Wednesday morning, promising MPs a vote on the final Brexit deal before Britain leaves in March 2019.
“The government has committed to hold a vote on the final deal in parliament as soon as possible after the negotiations have concluded. This vote will take the form of a resolution in both houses of parliament and will cover both the withdrawal agreement and the terms for our future relationship,” Davis said.
His statement was aimed at assuaging Grieve’s concern that ministers could use the powers in the bill to press ahead with Brexit without full parliamentary scrutiny.
But the rebels stood firm through eight hours of heated debate in the Commons. Just minutes before the vote was due, justice minister Dominic Raab said the government would table its own amendment later during the bill’s passage through the parliament to put into law the idea of a meaningful vote on the final deal.
But Grieve insisted: “It’s too late,” and joined Labour MPs in the division lobby.
Stephen Hammond, one of the rebel MPs, was quickly sacked as vice-chair of the Conservative party.
Labour sources said their own whips’ efforts to convince the Brexiters in their own party to vote for the amendment had been crucial to the crunch vote.
Leave-supporting MPs including Dennis Skinner, Grahame Morris, Ronnie Campbell and John Mann all voted for Grieve’s amendment in order to inflict defeat on the government.
The Guardian understands Corbyn rang some of Labour’s pro-Brexit MPs himself to urge them to back the Grieve amendment. Meanwhile loyal Tory backbenchers were asked to contact their Labour counterparts in Brexit-backing seats to warn them against appearing to disregard their voters’ views.
One party whip described the loss as a game-changer for the hung parliament. “It has broken the dam,” the MP said. “It will be much, much easier to do it again. Rebelling once gives you a taste for it. The discipline has been broken and it shows actually that if you do risk it and rebel for something you believe in, you can make a difference.”
The numbers were so tight many MPs coming out of the chamber after the vote said they believed the government had won. Catching his eye across the chamber, Soubry shook her head at Labour chief whip Nick Brown.
In a passionate half-hour speech, Grieve warned that if left unamended, the bill would unleash “a form of constitutional chaos”.
He said he had sought to engage with ministers to find a compromise over several weeks, but without success: “The blunt reality is, and I’m sorry to have to say this to the house, I’ve been left in the lurch, as a backbench member trying to improve this legislation.”
Tory MPs repeatedly clashed during the debate in a series of spiky exchanges.
Soubry said in the Commons,: “There comes a time when you have to set aside party differences and even party loyalty and you have to be true to what you believe in, and perhaps that time is now.”
She told the Guardian: “They have actually turned people into rebels by their complete inability to understand and listen to our concerns.”
Tory whips spent the day pressing backbenchers to reject the Grieve amendment, and several of them were called to No 10 in a last-minute attempt to persuade them to change their minds.
Relations with the “mutineers”, as they were dubbed by the Daily Telegraph, have deteriorated so much that some were even threatened with legal action if they made false public remarks about the activities of the government’s whips. At least one potential rebel was warned by Julian Smith, the chief whip, that they could be sued if they made defamatory comments about the whips’ activities.
Another backbencher described the approach of the whips, who are responsible for party discipline, as “bullying junior MPs”Some Tories reacted angrily to what they regarded as their colleagues’ disloyalty, with Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire even calling for them to be deselected for undermining the prime minister.
May promoted her chief whip Gavin Williamson, who had delivered victories in a string of tight parliamentary votes, to the job of defence secretary last month, after the resignation of Michael Fallon, and the relative inexperience of his successor, Julian Smith, was blamed by some rebels for the defeat.
But others said Davis had failed to pay sufficient attention to the concerns of the rebels, accusing him of a lack of “attention to detail”.
Some Tories reacted angrily to what they regarded as their colleagues’ disloyalty, with Nadine Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, even calling for them to be deselected for undermining May.
Ministers have repeatedly promised MPs a “meaningful vote”; but it had been unclear when that would happen – and some rebels feared the government could renege on its promise if it was not enshrined in law.
MPs will only be given the option of accepting or rejecting the deal, and the government has insisted the only possible alternative will be to crash out without a deal. But Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has suggested May could be forced to go back to Brussels to renegotiate. Some MPs believe any government that lost such a crucial vote would struggle to survive and could be forced to trigger a general election.
Wednesday’s defeat came after the government had already been forced to make concessions earlier in the week to quell a separate rebellion over the so-called Henry VIII powers contained in the bill. It raised questions about whether May will be able to command a majority next week for another contentious amendment, tabled by the government, to put the proposed date of Brexit – 29 March 2019 – into law.
Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP for Totnes, said the concessions when they came had been “far too little too late”.
Wollaston said it was “a moment, when parliament genuinely, without wanting to repeat a cliche, did take back control, we don’t change constitutional principles by statutory instruments”.
“No one wanted to vote against the government, but when the chips are down, do you feel its important enough to take a stand?” she said. “And we did. I think if we had rolled over on this, we would have stood no chance next week of having anyone take us seriously.”
The Tory rebels:
Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire), Ken Clarke (Rushcliffe), Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon), Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield), Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon), Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire), Nicky Morgan (Loughborough), Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst), Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury), Anna Soubry (Broxtowe), and Sarah Wollaston (Totnes).
John Stevenson (Carlisle) voted both aye and no, which is considered a formal abstention.
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