Why does a neutral motion spell Valentine's Day heartbreak for Theresa May?

Theresa May is set to face a defeat in the House of Commons over a Brexit vote. Credit: PA
  • By ITV News Westminster Producer Rachel Bradley

Love is unfortunately not in the air for the Prime Minister, who is headed for a Valentine's Day defeat in the Commons this evening over - yes, you guessed it - Brexit.

Thursday's vote was meant to be pretty straightforward.

The government is asking MPs to re-endorse the Prime Minister's plan to go back to Brussels and secure changes to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop (the backstop is the insurance plan in the Withdrawal Agreement to prevent a hard border returning between Northern Ireland and Ireland).

MPs will vote Thursday evening on a motion, tabled by the Government, which says parliament “reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January”.

This is meant to be a 'motion in neutral terms' - Parliamentary lingo simply asking MPs if they've considered the matter in hand.

Except the wording of this motion is causing problems, because some MPs don't think it's actually 'neutral' - i.e it's not as straightforward as it reads.

To recap, on 29 January, the House voted in favour of two amendments: The Brady amendment, brought by the Conservative MP Graham Brady to seek changes to the backstop, and the Spelman amendment - named after Tory MP Caroline Spelman - which seeks to rule out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

So when MPs are being asked to reaffirm the votes of 29 January in another vote on Thursday night, they are being asked to re-endorse both of these votes.

That's what's upsetting Brexiters like the ERG wing of the Conservative Party, who do want the backstop changed, but don't want no-deal taken off the table.

They argue ruling out no a no-deal Brexit weakens the UK's hand in negotiations and gives in to demands from Labour.

They are so unhappy that many are threatening to abstain or vote down the motion, meaning the Prime Minister could suffer yet another Commons defeat over Brexit.

Thursday's votes aren't legally binding - they are more symbolic than meaningful - but it's hardly helpful for the Prime Minister who, after a string of defeats, is trying to show the EU she can indeed command a majority in parliament if the EU gives a little over the backstop. Another loss doesn't quite signal unity.

If the Government won't change the wording before the vote (at the moment they are sticking with their motion), there could be more heartache over Brexit for the PM.