MPs dealt another wounding blow to the Prime Minister’s authority yesterday as they decided that she must come back to the Commons within three working days to set out a Plan B if her Brexit deal is rejected in next week’s crucial vote.
A dramatic first day of debate on Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement saw her suffer her second defeat within 24 hours amid furious debate over the impartiality of Commons Speaker John Bercow.
And Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer suggested that the continued uncertainty meant an extension of the Article 50 process, delaying the formal date of EU withdrawal beyond March 29, “may now be inevitable”.
Amid chaotic scenes in the chamber, MPs backed an amendment requiring the PM to come back to the Commons within three working days to set out her Plan B if her Withdrawal Agreement is rejected in the vote.
But Brexit-backing Tories accused Mr Bercow of flouting Commons procedures by allowing a vote on the proposal, tabled by former attorney general Dominic Grieve. And Downing Street said it was “very surprised” by the Speaker’s decision, as it had been advised the motion setting out the timeline for events was unamendable.
Previously, the Government had three weeks to bring forward new proposals if it is defeated in the “meaningful vote” on Tuesday, with a further vote to take place a week later.
The No 10 source said the Prime Minister had always intended to “respond quickly” if she fails to secure the support of the Commons. Nevertheless the vote will be seen as another blow to the Prime Minister’s authority as she struggles to win support for her Withdrawal Agreement.
The Government later accepted proposals which would give the House of Commons the power to reject both an extension to the Brexit transition period and the introduction of a backstop if no wider trade deal is secured by the end of 2020.
The package, tabled by former minister Sir Hugo Swire, also places a legally-binding commitment on the Government to end the backstop arrangement within 12 months, and to seek assurances from the EU that it will seek to do the same.
The development came after 17 Tory rebels helped pass Mr Grieve’s amendment by 308 votes to 297.
The vote came hard on the heels of Tuesday night’s Commons defeat for the Government on a motion intended to limit its powers to change taxes in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
A series of MPs rose to complain that the vote should not go ahead as the Government motion should not be amendable.
But Mr Bercow defended his decision amid jeers and heckles from the Tory benches.
He said: “I’m trying to do the right thing and make the right judgments.
“That is what I have tried to do and what I will go on doing.”
Mr Grieve said his amendment was an attempt to “accelerate the process” if the vote was lost so as to avoid the prospects of a no-deal Brexit.
“I realise there are a few of my colleagues who believe that if the Government’s deal is rejected we should simply do nothing and leave the EU on March 29 with no deal at all and with all, to my mind, the calamitous consequences that would follow on from it,” he told the BBC.
Justice minister Rory Stewart questioned the basis of Mr Bercow’s decision, saying: “It is a very, very unusual thing that he did. I think it probably would have been against the advice of most people on parliamentary procedure.”
Brexiteer former minister Crispin Blunt warned many no longer regarded him as a neutral arbiter of Commons proceedings and urged him to “reflect” on his position.
“For many of us we will now have an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs ... is no longer neutral,” he said.
Meanwhile, Yorkshire Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns described Mrs May’s deal as a “sell out” of those who voted Leave, adding it is “impossible” for the Commons and country to unite behind it.
Ms Jenkyns, who has represented Morley and Outwood since ousting Ed Balls in 2015, said “the division we have seen is as a result of the Prime Minister’s own making”.