Theresa May saw off a damaging Commons rebellion as Conservative remainers lost a high-stakes vote on the customs union, giving the prime minister some much-needed breathing space on Brexit before the summer break.
She avoided all-out Tory civil war and the wrath of the Eurosceptic wing of her party, which had threatened to launch a leadership challenge, when MPs defeated the proposal by six votes.
However, minutes earlier, May suffered her second ever Brexit defeat when the Commons, in an unexpected move, backed calls for the UK to remain under EU medicines regulation.
Just 24 hours earlier, the prime minister had caved in to hardline Tory Brexiters by accepting their amendments to the customs bill, infuriating remainer MPs and leaving Eurosceptics convinced they had killed off her Chequers plan.
Downing Street sources suggested, however, that the prime minister would be emboldened in her negotiations with Brussels by the result as it showed that she had the backing of parliament.
MPs voted 307 to 301 to overturn the rebel amendment to the trade bill under which Britain would be forced to join a customs union with the EU if no agreement were reached on frictionless trade by 21 January 2019.
Twelve Tory remainers, led by former ministers Stephen Hammond and Nicky Morgan, backed the proposal, which they claimed offered a safeguard in the event of there being no trade agreement with the EU in the run-up to Brexit on 29 March.
Sources claimed more Tory MPs would have rebelled if government whips had not threatened to pull the third reading of the bill and table a no confidence vote in May themselves if the vote was lost, raising the spectre of a general election.
Five Labour Brexit-supporting MPs, including one who is suspended, voted alongside the government against the customs “backstop” plan – Kate Hoey, John Mann, Frank Field, Graham Stringer and Kelvin Hopkins – risking the fury of their colleagues for saving the prime minister’s skin.
Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw, said: “We need a Brexit deal that prioritises jobs and industry, with a deal that delivers frictionless trade. The Tory remainers’ amendment would have made the likelihood of crashing out with a no deal more likely, not less likely.”
The Tory party chair, Brandon Lewis, caused confusion after he voted with the government in both the key votes, despite being paired with deputy Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, who was at home on maternity leave with her three-week-old baby.
prompting a furious response from Swinson, who claimed he had abstained on votes during the course of the afternoon but not in the two crunch votes. She tweeted: “Don’t try any nonsense about a mistake – this is calculated, deliberate breaking of trust by government whips to win at all costs. There’s a word for it – cheating.”
Tory backbenchers had been furious at being put in the invidious position of having to defend voting for an early break to their constituents, while ministers including the home secretary, Sajid Javid, were understood to be frustrated by the short time it left for them to get through government business.
Although the defeat on the medicines amendment, with MPs voting 305 to 301 in favour, was both humiliating and unexpected, it does not impact on the central proposals in May’s Brexit plan.
The former minister Phillip Lee, who quit over Brexit last month, tabled the amendment, which he said was vital to ensuring British citizens would continue to get the treatment they needed after leaving the EU.
Courtesy: Global governance watch