Theresa May’s flagship Brexit bill has cleared its final parliamentary hurdle after she avoided a backbench rebellion with an eleventh hour concession to pro-EU Tories.
MPs voted by 319 to 303 to reject a House of Lords amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would have ensured the Commons would have the chance to block a “no deal” Brexit.
The legislation subsequently returned to the Upper House in the final stage of “parliamentary ping-pong”, where it passed without a vote.
The Department for Exiting the EU said it marked a “crucial step” in the UK preparations for leaving the bloc.
“It is a good moment for all those who want a smooth and orderly exit,” a spokesman said.
Earlier, there were dramatic scenes at Westminster as MPs were told shortly before the key vote that an official ministerial statement would be issued on Thursday making clear it is ultimately for Speaker John Bercow to decide whether they get a “meaningful vote” on a no-deal withdrawal from the EU.
The concession was accepted by leading pro-EU Tory Dominic Grieve, who was greeted with jeers of “shame” from the opposition benches when he declared he would back the Government.
But it was dismissed as a fudge by Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and described as meaningless by Labour whips.
Despite the concession six Tory rebels voted for the amendment, while on the Labour side four pro-Brexit MPs defied their whips to vote with the Government against it.
Mr Grieve had tabled an amendment to the bill, requiring MPs to be given the opportunity to approve or reject the Government’s plans for the next steps in the case that no agreement can be reached with Brussels by Brexit Day in March next year.
With the Government instead offering only an unamendable “neutral motion” allowing MPs to take note of the situation, Mrs May was thought to be facing a knife-edge vote.
Downing Street’s determination to force their motion through was indicated when Tory whips made clear they would not abide by a parliamentary convention allowing votes to be “nodded through” from ambulances and cars in the courtyard outside if MPs are too ill to physically pass through the voting lobbies.
Bradford West’s Naz Shah, who has been ill, was pushed in to vote in a wheelchair with a sick bucket on her lap, in scenes which fellow Labour MP Catherine McKinnell said showed an “utter lack of humanity and compassion” from the Government.
Meanwhile pregnant Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson and Labour MP Laura Pidcock turned out to oppose the PM’s plans despite being close to their due dates.
The statement to be issued on Thursday by Brexit Secretary David Davis states explicitly that the parliamentary rule-book gives the Speaker the power to determine whether a motion is amendable or not.
It also notes the parliamentary convention that time is made available to debate motions tabled by MPs on matters of concern.
But Downing Street left no doubt ministers are confident of drafting a motion which Mr Bercow will deem to be unamendable.
Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “We will ensure that under standing orders the motion we bring forward is neutral.”
Mr Grieve said the statement amounted to an “obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place over the executive in black and white language”.
And former minister Stephen Hammond said: “Today the Government have in effect finally agreed that Parliament will have a meaningful vote in the event of no deal.”
But Tory Remainer Antoinette Sandbach said she would stick by the rebel amendment to provide a means of avoiding “catastrophe” if negotations with Brussels break down.
“Not to have a process in place for what would happen should negotiations collapse would be irresponsible,” she warned.
Conservative former minister and anti-Brexiteer Anna Soubry also rebelled, insisting MPs’ power to reject the Government’s plans must be enshrined in statute.
Also rebelling was Phillip Lee, who quit his job as justice minister in order to vote against the Government last week, along with Tory backbenchers Heidi Allen, Kenneth Clarke and Sarah Wollaston.
On the Labour side, MPs Frank Field, Kate Hoey, John Mann and Graham Stringer voted with the Government.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Davis of trying to “sideline Parliament when its voice is most needed”.
Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said the vote would strengthen Mrs May’s hand at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on June 28-29.
He told Sky News: “This means the Prime Minister goes to negotiations in June with full strength, with the ability to say the legislation to leave the EU, under EU law and UK law, is now fully in place.”