Theresa May survives knife-edge vote but Tory splits widen

Government won a crucial vote on the collection of UK tariffs by the EU but lost a loyalist minister

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, bound for the House of Commons to face Prime Minister's Questions, Wednesday July 4, 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

The Conservative party found itself on the verge of collapse on Monday night despite the government narrowly avoiding defeat on a key vote on a Eurosceptic measure relating to Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May had earlier in the day accepted a series of pro-Brexit amendments from the European Reform Group (ERG) led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, which had caused an angry backlash from pro-EU Tory MPs such as Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve.

Mrs May won by 305 votes to 302 but lost a minister in the process as Guto Bebb, who was responsible for defence procurement, resigned to vote against the ERG measure. Mr Bebb reportedly quit as he entered the division lobby, showing his disenchantment with Mrs May's capitulation to Leavers.

As a result of the vote, Mrs May must now try to persuade the EU to collect UK tariffs on goods destined for Britain as part of her Brexit plan.

There had earlier been furious scenes in the House of Commons as Tory MPs tore into each other across the green leather benches of the chamber.

Ms Soubry accused Leaver colleagues of sacrificing jobs in the interests of Brexit at any cost. “What they have said in those private conversations is that the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs will be worth it to regain our country’s sovereignty. You tell that to the people of my constituency,” she said.

“Nobody voted Leave on the basis that somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth would take their job away from them,” Ms Soubry added in an attack seen to be personally aimed at Mr Rees-Mogg.

A head of steam is growing among anti-Brexit Tories and it could take as few as seven rebels to defeat the government if all opposition parties vote against it too.

Former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan told an event in central London that she is “very, very angry” about the government backing down to Conservative Eurosceptics – she voted against the amendments.

Dominic Grieve, leader of the pro-EU rebels in May’s Conservative Party, also voted against the amendments, telling lawmakers that the government has accepted changes to the bill it knows are inadequate and badly drafted. “It is just an exercise in bullying” and the tabling of them by Eurosceptics was malevolent, he said.

There is still “an exercise in deception and self-deception” about the implications of leaving the EU, Mr Grieve concluded.

Former Tory education secretary Justine Greening had earlier made the case for a second referendum. Parliament “has reached stalemate and there are deep divisions in terms of people’s views. It’s time for the British public to have the final say,” she told lawmakers.

Trying to fudge the issue won’t help, she added. “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous. You get knocked down by traffic from both directions.”

Meanwhile a plan appeared to be being drawn up to send members of parliament away on their summer vacation early.

The House of Commons will hold a vote on Tuesday on a move to break up early for the summer recess, according to a person familiar with the matter. The vacation is due to start on July 24 but would begin at the end of business on Thursday instead, if lawmakers back the plan.

Mrs May is under pressure from both pro and anti-Brexit wings of her Tory party and has suffered a succession of resignations from her government team in protest at her plan to keep close ties with the EU.

The prime minister’s team believe it will be far harder for legislators to coordinate their opposition to Mrs May if they are dispersed around the country or the rest of the world on vacation and Parliament is not sitting. An early vacation would certainly give welcome breathing space to the government.