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Time to Grieve for Brexit rebels

PUBLISHED: 13:14 21 June 2018 | UPDATED: 13:14 21 June 2018

Theresa May managed, somehow, to get the Brexit Bill through the Commons
Photo: PA / Victoria Jones

Theresa May managed, somehow, to get the Brexit Bill through the Commons Photo: PA / Victoria Jones

PA Wire/PA Images

The Brexit rebels have tried to spin it but the truth is they were outmanoeuvred by the government.

The procedures of parliament are complex and open to much interpretation but if the speaker does give the House the chance to vote it appears that the outcome will not be binding.

Put simply Dominic Grieve, leader of the Tory Brexit rebels, waved the white flag. The former attorney general was played by David Davis and now the government is firmly in charge.

In the end when the new amendment came back it was clear fairly early during the pre-debate, back-room wrangling that the rebels were not going to have the numbers.

The Brexit secretary’s ministerial statement – you might well need a law degree to understand it – promised nothing. It just set out the options available to parliament moving forward.

Initially the Remainers thought they had won a significant concession but soon they realised the game was up - for now at least.

Prominent Remainer Chuka Umunna said: “It’s disappointing the so called ‘Grieve 2’ amendment did not pass (I, of course, voted for it) but significant that ministers were forced to climb down and issue a statement acknowledging parliament’s vital role at the end of the process.”

He added: “There are still five Brexit related Bills to make their way through parliament which are legally binding and amendable: Customs Bill, Trade Bill, Fisheries Bill, Agriculture Bill and the Immigration Bill. There will also be a huge number of statutory instruments to pass too.”

Mr Umunna is right that there are many battles still to be won for the government on Brexit in the House of Commons. But it does feel a like he is clutching at straws a little.

And the Brexiteers – who were as confused as anyone in the initial aftermath of the climbdown – are now crowing.

One told this column: “The fact of the matter is that Dominic realised he was not going to have the support he needed. When Nicky Morgan said she would vote with the government the game really was up.

“It is great news for the prime minister and those of us who want a clean, orderly Brexit. It is vital that the prime minister is allowed to go into negotiations without one hand tied behind her back.

“I am now confident that we can make really positive progress with Brussels and get the deal we want – and one that works for the EU as well. This is a very significant moment.”

So, she’s done it again hasn’t she? Mrs May will surely go down in history as a political Houdini. Credit where it is due: She has survived and got her way again.

There was some double-crossing along the way. It seems unlikely the prime minister and the whips office will be trusted again by rebels when they make promises in a bid to avoid defeat.

The tactics they used were brutal: sick and pregnant MPs were forced through the lobby, threats and counter-threats no doubt made. Let’s hope, for Mrs May’s sake and the country’s, that this whole episode is worth it.

And what of the opposition? What happened to them?

Labour’s performance on Brexit has been tepid. It has taken them a very long time to get their line straight and many believe there are contradictions between what the front bench say publicly and what they say behind closed doors.

We shouldn’t blame Sir Keir Starmer overly for this mess though. He is a thoughtful and serious politician with the experience to become a very serious player in Labour politics in the years ahead.

In fact, for many of the more moderate Labour MPs he represents their only real hope of dragging the party back to the centre ground.

The next big Brexit battle will be next month’s Trade Bill which is likely to have amendments regarding the customs union (or partnership) with the EU post-Brexit. The Remainers now see this as vital. And it is also the Bill Brussels will be most closely watching because it could determine the future of the Irish border.

But expect the government to be bullish. Number 10 have scored a couple of late winners against the run of play and will feel confident going in to the next Commons showdown.

Will the rebels re-group? Do they have any fight left in them after being out-gunned and out-played twice by the government?

Time will tell but this is a PM who keeps finding a way.

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