Brexit: Rebel Conservative and opposition MPs fail to defeat government on key customs union amendment to Trade Bill
Remainer rebels in the Conservatives and Labour MPs have failed to derail Theresa May over her Brexit policy, leaving the Prime Minister bruised but not beaten yet again.
An amendment to the government’s Trade Bill, requiring the UK to seek customs union membership if frictionless trade is not secure by January next year, was opposed by 307 votes to 301.
The amendment was proposed by pro-EU Conservatives Stephen Hammond and Nicky Morgan, and was in direct contrast to the government’s stated position, which is to leave the customs union in order to strike free trade deals with other countries.
In total, a dozen Tory MPs voted for the amendment, but rebels were unable to convince more colleagues to join them.
Furthermore, four Leave-supporting Labour MPs voted with the government, helping to push May’s plan over the line.
Remain-backing Labour MP Chuka Umunna hit out at his parliamentary colleagues who backed the government. “It’s very disappointing and our communities will question why Labour MPs are jeopardising jobs,” he said.
One other amendment, ensuring the government seeks participation in the European medicines regulatory network as part of its negotiating objectives, was passed with 305 votes to 301 – a majority of just four.
In the run up to the vote, Tory whips were said to be going into overdrive with threats that defeating the government on such a critical point would result in a General Election, and with it the threat of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government.
On the floor of the house, Hammond was asked repeatedly to back down.
In a similar vein to previous tactics used during the EU Withdrawal Bill, newly promoted international trade minister George Hollingbery – May's former PPS – said the government would bring forward an amendment of its own "that takes in the essence of new clause 18 but removes the defective elements relating to the customs union".
He added: "The government amendment will restate our intention to establish a customs arrangement with the European Union."
Hammond said it was a “generous offer from the front bench, and one that I’m tempted to accept”.
However – perhaps attempting a tactic that worked for the European Research Group – he said: "Let’s do this the other way round, I’ll make you a generous offer. Why don’t you accept new clause 18 today and then amend it in the Lords."
That was “entirely in line” with the government’s objectives.
Colleague Morgan stood by Hammond and underscored the divisions in her party.
"The Prime Minister did the right thing by putting on the table a workable, practical proposal, captured at Chequers, which could be negotiated with the EU," she said. "Members of these benches chose to try to scupper that agreement and those proposals yesterday. Some of us tried to stop them. Sadly we failed.
"What is proposed in new clause 18, and I’m delighted to join [Stephen Hammond] in proposing this, is something that is eminently sensible. We give the Prime Minister space for those negotiations. But it is very clear that in this House there is a majority for a customs union to safeguard business and jobs and the financial interests of our constituents in the future."
The mood in the Commons was dark.
Labour MP Umunna tweeted: "Extreme verbal bullying by Tory whips of their MPs in full flow now, threatening all kinds of nonsense if Tory MPs don’t capitulate to the ERG like the PM. Noticeable that Tory whips treat the Tory pro-European sensibles very differently to the ERG Brextremists"