At 3pm yesterday afternoon, the Remainer rebels led by Dominic Grieve thought the government was honouring the PM’s putative commitment to draft an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill in the spirit of Grieve’s amendment.
At 4.45, Grieve was told by an embarrassed solicitor general Robert Buckland that the deal was off.
The Remainer rebels are not happy. And the scene is set for a final parliamentary showdown on the “meaningful vote” issue, in the Lords on Monday and the Commons on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Here is what happened and what was at stake. It is complicated so please bear with me.
The contentious amendment clause was all about the role and power of parliament in the event the PM has not agreed a Brexit deal with the EU by 21 January next year (which was earlier than Grieve preferred date of 15 February but accepted by him).
In the version of the amendment which at 3pm yesterday Grieve thought he had agreed with Buckland, the government in those circumstances would have put a motion to MPs about its next Brexit steps – that is how to avert tumbling out of the EU with no deal – which MPs could have amended.
It would have given MPs a meaningful vote and say on Brexit in the event that a no-deal exit was just days away. But to be clear it would not have straitjacketed the prime minister, because motions of that sort influence but do not bind her.
Even so Grieve was satisfied, as were the 20 odd Remainer Rebels.
Then at 4.45 Buckland rang Grieve. The deal was off. The amendment had been redrafted.
The new version, which Buckland embarrassedly presented as a fait accompli, had changed the nature of the motion that would be put to parliament if a no-deal Brexit loomed. Under Buckland’s new formulation, the motion would simply take note of what the government was planning – but the motion would not be amendable and therefore would give MPs no power at all to avert or veto a no-deal Brexit.
Since the whole point of Grieve’s amendment was to give MPs the power to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, Grieve and his allies were understandably furious – the more so since they felt the PM had reneged on what she promised them when persuading them to vote with the government on Monday.
And they see the hand of the Brexit secretary David Davis in the last minute rewriting of the amendment to prevent MPs from vetoing a no-deal Brexit.
What happens next is that the Lords on Monday will vote both on Grieve’s original amendment – which the PM hates – and probably too on an amendment to the government’s new amendment that would return it to its Grievian form (sorry this is so convoluted – but that’s parliamentary procedure for you).
So all that really happened this week and yesterday was that the can has been kicked by Theresa May a few days down the road. The highly contentious meaningful vote question will come back from the Lords to the Commons on Tuesday or Wednesday.
And at that point the showdown between Remainer Rebels and True Brexiters, which the PM was so desperate to avert on Monday, will finally take place. And there remains a substantial risk that the True Brexiters and – more importantly – the Prime Minister will lose.