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Backbenchers are real threat to Mrs May now

PUBLISHED: 14:51 15 December 2017

Nicky Morgan will loom large over the Government's Brexit plans

Nicky Morgan will loom large over the Government's Brexit plans

PA Archive/PA Images

The faces on either sides of the chamber told the story.

The faces on either side of the chamber told the story.

On the Government front bench sat the pale and sickly Conservatives.

Opposite there was joy and a distinct whiff of schadenfreude at the defeat at the hands of Labour and a clutch of Tory rebels.

But perhaps now the dust has started to settle on that night of high drama – as former Attorney General Dominic Grieve led the Tory rebels to force a final parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal – we should explore exactly what happened.

Brexit is not off. It is not finished. The UK is still quitting the European Union. The train left the station when Article 50 was triggered. But now Parliament will get a final say.

During the referendum campaign many in the Leave camp argued backing their cause would restore parliamentary sovereignty. This is that wish in high-definition, full colour, volume turned up to 11.

But this hasn’t stopped an almighty backlash.

The normalisation of words like ‘traitor’ and ‘treachery’ and ‘saboteurs’ is worrying. The rebels did not vote to stop Brexit in the division – although it is true that many would like to. They didn’t even vote against it.

They voted to ensure they could properly do their job as democratically-elected representatives. That is what Parliament’s role is.

This defeat for Mrs May has been said to “pull the rug” from under our negotiating team. I would argue the opposite.

In many ways it strengthens the UK team’s hand. The EU must now bear in mind the fact that any dud offer could be scuppered by Parliament.

“Ahhhh...” I hear you say, “But the EU want Britain to stay – they will simply offer us a dreadful deal which will never pass through the House of Commons.” I doubt it. Firstly that would leave them open to accusations of keeping a nation hostage. In fact, all that would happen then is we would leave without a deal – and that is the EU’s major fear. They need a good deal too.

Often when we debate Brexit here in the UK we forget that salient fact: the EU want a deal that works.

For poor, embattled Mrs May though this defeat is damaging.

She was enjoying her best period since before calling that doomed election back in April. She had a deal and the UK could move on to trade talks. “Rejoice” ran one screaming national newspaper headline.

But yesterday she had to return to Brussels, red-faced and bruised, but she is still not beaten in the eyes of the EU top brass. Because the alternative is anathema to Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Guy Verhofstadt – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

In Westminster her standing was already pretty low – she has no real authority and is presiding over a cabinet gone rogue. And now she has a serious rebel faction that knows they can defeat her.

Since Brexit political splits have risen to the fore – Leave, Remain, soft Brexit, hard Brexit, Left, Right, authoritarian, libertarian. Mrs May doesn’t have any friends in any of these camps. It is such a delicate balancing act for her back home – there are a lot of people out to get her.

Nicky Morgan is one of them. The former Education Secretary was dumped from cabinet when Mrs May took the reins and has made her views on Brexit clear.

But she is no longer just a sniping backbencher sour about the way the political wind is blowing. Last week she masterminded an open letter – signed by 19 Tory MPs – highlighting concerns about the influence of hard Brexiteers, she rebelled with glee and most importantly she is the chairman for the Treasury Select Committee.

Mrs May, with the help of the EU, can just about hold Mr Johnson and Mr Gove at bay. But Ms Morgan is a loose cannon with no personal skin in the game. It is the backbenchers Mrs May should be really anxious about.

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