Many Remainers were livid with the Tory “rebels” – the Remainer Conservative MPs who had threatened to vote for the Lords’ amendment on a “meaningful” vote on the final Brexit deal – for having in the end voted with the government and defeated the amendment last night. I am not asking any of you who feel this way to not do so – I’m only here to straighten out a very key misconception. The Tory rebels have not “taken Mrs May at her word”; they cannot possibly be “screwed over” by the PM. In fact, they have placed the prime minister in an impossible to escape from situation.
The Tory rebels effectively have a majority in both houses of parliament on this issue. In other words, if all that existed in Britain was the issue of the meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal, Dominic Grieve would be the prime minister, for all intents and purposes. If May doesn’t give the Tory rebel MPs enough of what they want in terms of the Grieve amendment, the Lords can simply vote for the Grieve amendment in its full, unvarnished form as part of the ping pong process. For those of you unfamiliar with what I mean by ping pong: when the House of Lords makes amendments to a Bill and the Commons votes them down, that is not the final say. The Lords can keep sending the amendments back, often with only very minor, cosmetic adjustments or even add new amendments to the pile for up to two years, at which point the prime minister can override all the Lordships’ concerns via the Parliament Act. It’s called ping pong because the Bill is bouncing between the two houses of parliament, with each side giving way until the final Bill is agreed.
Needless to say, Theresa May doesn’t have two years to play with. And she has no leverage here apart from convincing the Tory rebels that the Grieve amendment passing will bring her premiership down and invite the Brexiteer Right into Number 10. Given that was the threat that didn’t work last night – thus why she had to fold on the Grieve amendment – I don’t see why it would work after May had folded in the opposite direction against them. This is important to understand: May cannot prevent this from happening if the rebels are determined to see it through. They are effectively giving her some time to play with in order to make it look in the end like the rebels and the government are in lock step. If May doesn’t play along, the Lords pass the Grieve amendment, that amendment passes the House of Commons, and the Withdrawal Bill gets Royal Assent with that as part of it.
Very soon we might see just how much the Tory Brexiteer threats to topple May amount to, when she either gives in to the rebels in full to make it all seem co-ordinated, or gets defeated in the House of Commons on the Grieve amendment in full.