Theresa May is facing the biggest parliamentary bust-up yet on her flagship Brexit legislation after a compromise designed to keep critics in her own party on board was denounced as “unacceptable” by Tory Remainers.
The move was branded “sneaky” by one backbencher while another senior pro-EU Tory said the wording of a Government amendment was changed at the last minute to deny MPs the chance of blocking a “no deal” Brexit.
Peers are to vote on Monday on a proposal to give MPs the power to dictate the Government’s response if it fails to reach a deal with Brussels as a potentially bloody round of “parliamentary ping-pong” gets under way.
Mrs May avoided almost certain defeat in the House of Commons on Tuesday by inviting potential rebels into her private office and assuring them that their concerns about having a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal would be addressed.
However, the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill tabled on Thursday leaves Parliament facing a “deal or no deal” choice.
If MPs reject the agreement reached by Mrs May with Brussels – or if no deal has been obtained by January 21 – Parliament will be offered the opportunity only to vote on a “neutral motion” stating that it has considered a minister’s statement on the issue.
Crucially, the motion will be unamendable, meaning that MPs cannot insert a requirement for Mrs May to go back to the negotiating table, extend the Brexit transition or revoke the UK’s withdrawal under Article 50.
Leading pro-EU Conservative Dominic Grieve told the Press Association: “It is unacceptable in my view. It is not in accordance with the normal procedures of the House of Commons and it totally negates the point of the amendment, which was to give MPs a say.”
Mr Grieve indicated the final text of the amendment tabled by ministers on Thursday been changed from the wording which he believed had been agreed earlier in the day.
He told PA: “After what had been a very sensible negotiation, I thought we had an agreement, and at the last moment part of the text was changed to make the final motion unamendable if there isn’t a deal by the end of January 21.
“I think it is unacceptable because it seems to me to be contrary to what the whole intention was behind this whole amendment.”
Mr Grieve previously tabled his own proposals, which would have allowed Parliament to dictate the next steps the Government should take if no deal was reached by the end of February.
However, the Grieve amendment was not put to a vote on Tuesday after would-be rebels accepted “personal assurances” from the PM that a compromise would be found.
Instead, the majority of the pro-EU Tories backed the Government in voting down a Lords amendment to give them the power to tell ministers to go back to Brussels and renegotiate.
Now Conservative peer Viscount Hailsham has re-tabled Mr Grieve’s amendment in the House of Lords, setting the scene for a fresh Government defeat when the Bill returns to the Second Chamber on Monday.
A spokesman for David Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU said the Government amendment met the tests set down by the Brexit Secretary and Prime Minister that any changes to the Bill must not undermine negotiations or change the constitutional roles of Parliament and Government and must respect the referendum result.
The spokesman said the wording “ensures that in all circumstances Parliament can hold Government to account while also allowing Government to deliver on the will of the British people as expressed in the referendum”.
He added: “This remains hypothetical and the Government is confident we will agree a good deal with the EU which Parliament will support.”
Pro-EU Tories were quick to voice their anger.
Shortly before the text of the amendment was tabled, former minister Anna Soubry tweeted to say that “deal or no deal Parliament will have a meaningful vote and … there will be no hard Brexit”.
However, following the release of the Government’s proposals, she said: “I understand the Government has tabled an amendment that has not been agreed by Dominic Grieve. Grateful for the conversations but without consultation what was agreed earlier today has been changed.”
Sarah Wollaston tweeted: “So just to be clear we are now going to have to amend the ‘unamendable’ after the agreed amendable amendment
acquired a sneaky sting in the tail.
“Would be funny if only it wasn’t such a serious issue.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “The Government’s amendment is simply not good enough.
“Theresa May has gone back on her word and offered an amendment that takes the meaning out of the meaningful vote. Parliament cannot – and should not – accept it.”
But Labour MP Tom Tugendhat said the issue of the “meaningful vote” was secondary as the Government would fall if it could not secure parliamentary approval for its Brexit deal.
“If the government can’t get the most important treaty through Parliament we’ll be looking for a new government,” said Mr Tugendhat.
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “It appears Theresa May has been caught red-handed making conflicting offers to Tory rebels and hard-right Brexiters. It was clear she couldn’t keep both promises – we are now finding out which lie she was telling.