Theresa May heads to EU summit with diminished authority after Brexit vote defeat

British Prime Minister Theresa May will travel to a critical European Union summit with her authority diminished after Tory rebels inflicted a humiliating House of Commons defeat on the British Government in a major Brexit vote.

MPs proclaimed Parliament had "taken back control" of the Brexit process after they defeated the Government to ensure a "meaningful vote" on the withdrawal deal.

Theresa May will travel to a critical European Union summit. Pic: Rick Findler/PA Wire

Theresa May will hope it does not damage the confidence of EU leaders in her authority to conduct Brexit negotiations as they prepare to rubber-stamp a move forward to trade talks.

In a night of high drama, rebel ringleader Dominic Grieve told the Government it was "too late" as ministers made last-minute concessions in an attempt to head off the revolt.

He saw his amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill squeezed through the Commons on a majority of four amid tense scenes.

It means MPs and peers will be given more control over the Government’s implementation of the withdrawal agreement, as ministers will have to pass a statute, which can be amended, before it takes effect.

Ms May who attempted to reassert authority by sacking Tory vice chair and Brexit rebel Stephen Hammond, could face questions about the vote’s implications at a dinner with the other 27 EU leaders today, who she will urge to begin trade talks as quickly as possible.

The European Commission’s assessment that "sufficient progress" has been made on divorce issues to move Brexit negotiations on to their second phase gave the British prime minister a huge boost just last week.

And the EU27 are expected to green-light phase two when they meet in Ms May’s absence on the second day of their two-day summit in Brussels on Friday.

But the political capital she has built up was dealt a damaging blow by today’s vote, which led to bitter recriminations in the Conservative Party, with 11 MPs joining opposition parties in backing the amendment, and a handful of others abstaining.

The European Parliament’s chief Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted:

Backers of a "soft" Brexit, including Tory rebels Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, also hailed the result.

Ms Morgan tweeted:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who will be cheered by the fact that only two of his own Brexiteer MPs rebelled to back the Government, said: "This defeat is a humiliating loss of authority for the Government on the eve of the European Council meeting.

"Theresa May has resisted democratic accountability. Her refusal to listen means she will now have to accept Parliament taking back control."

Mr Grieve said he had no option but to push his amendment to a vote because the Bill gave "intransigent" ministers "the biggest Henry VIII power ever conferred on Government" with no justification.

The former British attorney general evoked Winston Churchill during the debate, telling the Commons: "There’s a time for everybody to stand up and be counted" and stressing he put "the country before the party".

He said his amendment would not stop Brexit but the vote provoked a furious backlash from Leavers.

Tory Nadine Dorries called for the deselection of rebel Tories for "undermining the PM", while accusing Mr Grieve of "treachery".

But rebel Tory Sarah Wollaston hit back on Twitter, saying:

In dramatic scenes in the Commons, Tory rebels shouted "too late" as justice minister Dominic Raab outlined his concession and Government whips buzzed around the chamber in an attempt to win over rebel MPs.

As the division was called, would-be rebel Vicky Ford appeared to be wavering between division lobbies before being ushered towards the Government side by Chancellor Philip Hammond and Brexiteer MP James Cleverly.

Earlier, Ms Soubry revealed she had found a woman MP "upset and shaken" on Tuesday evening after a whip tried to persuade her not to revolt.

Downing Street said it would "respect the will of MPs" but a Government spokeswoman suggested it may seek to amend the Bill during later stages of its passage through Parliament.

In a further setback, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has warned progress at the Brussels summit may not mean an immediate start to the trade talks which Mrs May is seeking.

Mr Barnier told MEPs the European Council would initially concentrate on the terms of a transition to the post-Brexit relationship, while he would focus on turning last Friday’s deal into a legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement.

Michel Barnier

A leaked draft of a text to be considered by the EU27 leaders on Friday suggests that trade talks may not start until after a subsequent summit in March, when a further set of guidelines will be produced.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the defeat would not derail the Brexit process.

"I don’t think it should be a surprise that in a hung Parliament, Parliament wants to reassert its right to scrutinise the process," he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

"But we should also be clear this isn’t going to slow down Brexit, it’s not going to stop Brexit.

"When it comes to the unity of the Conservative Party, the big picture is not actually what happened last night but what happened last week, because people said it would be absolutely impossible for Theresa May to get a deal with Brussels that united the Cabinet and the party, and actually she got a fantastic agreement which met all our red lines and allowed us to move on to the next stage of the negotiations."

Asked whether MPs could force the Government back to the negotiating table if they rejected the Brexit deal, Mr Hunt said: "Parliament can say whatever it wants but of course renegotiation is something that involves two parties."


 

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