Dominic Grieve backs down in Commons vote battle

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Ministers appear to have headed off a rebellion by Tory MPs minutes before a key vote on their say over Brexit.

Would-be rebels were set to force a showdown on what role Parliament will have in the event of no agreed deal.

But key figure Dominic Grieve said he was backing down after he was promised the Commons Speaker would decide whether a motion on what to do next if there is no deal can be amended by MPs.

He told MPs that the “sovereignty of Parliament” had been acknowledged.

And another potential rebel Nicky Morgan said this amounted to a “meaningful vote” and she would back it.

The UK is due to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019 and negotiations have been taking place over the terms of its departure.

MPs will decide later whether they agree with the House of Lords or with the government over the long-running row over what happens if the UK cannot reach a deal with the EU or Parliament rejects the deal.

Changes to the EU Withdrawal Bill put forward by the Lords would give MPs a greater say in these scenarios.

The Commons vote had been expected to be tight but the government’s latest concession appears to have won some of potential opponents round.

Labour is still urging its MPs to support the Lords’ amendment, describing it as the “last chance” for Parliament to guard against “a no-deal Brexit” which it says would damage the economy.

But the government says giving Parliament the power to intervene in negotiations would bind Theresa May’s hands in the talks.

Haven’t MPs already voted on this?

Yes – last week the Commons overturned a differently-worded House of Lords amendment on the same subject, after would-be rebels who support giving Parliament a greater role were given assurances that the government would take their concerns into account.

But the would-be rebels were unhappy at the government’s subsequent offer to meet their concerns, describing it as a “slap in the face”.

On Monday the government was defeated by 119 votes in the Lords, who tabled a new amendment which would mean MPs have to “approve” whatever the government decides to do if there is no Brexit deal.

MPs are currently debating the rival amendments and will vote soon.

Theresa May’s Conservatives do not have a majority in the House of Commons, and ministers will be hoping Tory MPs unhappy at what has been offered so far do not decide to rebel this time.

As well as what the would-be Tory rebels choose to do, the number of Labour MPs voting with the government could also be a key factor.

The sticking points

The debate centres on what happens in three Brexit scenarios:

  • If MPs vote down the UK-EU Brexit deal
  • If Theresa May announces before 21 January 2019 that no deal has been reached
  • If 21 January passes with no deal being struck.

Under these circumstances, the government has said, a minister will make a statement in Parliament, setting out the proposed next steps.

MPs will then vote on this statement. According to the government, this vote should be “on neutral terms”, with MPs simply noting what has been said.

But the Lords’ amendment goes further, saying MPs should have to “approve” the minister’s statement.

The Department for Exiting the European Union has now conceded that it will be up to Commons Speaker John Bercow to decide the matter at the time.

‘Issue of assurance’

Speaking in the Commons, Dominic Grieve said he resented the way that peers had been “vilified” for doing their job.

While he regarded Brexit as a “historic mistake”, he said he respected the vote of the British public to leave.

He said the issue of the meaningful vote was about giving “assurances to the House and many, many people in the country who are worried about this process and how it will end”.

If Parliament wished to “speak with one voice” and exert its influence in the face of a non-deal scenario, it “has the power to do it”.

Mr Grieve said he had insisted on a key paragraph in the government statement accepting “it is open to MPs to table motions and debate matters of concern and that, as is the convention, parliamentary time will be provided for this”.

Earlier Solicitor General Robert Buckland urged MPs to make a show of “national unity” ahead of a key summit of EU leaders next week.

He said it was “important to send a clear message not just to the world of Westminster but to Brussels that this is a prime minister…that can get vital legislation through about Brexit”.

EU has ‘serious’ differences with UK

Meanwhile, the EU has said there are “serious divergences” with the UK on a key issue in the negotiations – what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit.

The UK and the EU have published a joint statement outlining the progress that has been made in the talks so far.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, praised the “dedication and commitment” of the negotiating teams, and said progress had been made in “separation issues” like customs, VAT and the European nuclear agreement, Euratom.

Repeating his call for a “fully operational backstop” to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland, he added: “Today marks a step forward in these negotiations. but a lot more work needs to be done before October.”