As Britain hopefully inches towards Brexit, Theresa May has staved off a backbench rebellion within the Conservative party on a critical piece of legislation ~ the Customs bill and its impact on Whitehall’s equation with the European Union. It is a wafer-thin margin of victory ~ 307 to 301 ~ and the slender lead of six votes can hardly enthuse 10 Downing Street. The rumblings within have jolted Westminster.
After considerable uncertainty over its fate, it was a dramatic night in the House of Commons; the government has managed to get its Customs bill passed on the strength of what they call “knife-edge” votes. Several pro-EU Conservatives are said to have voted against their party. Though the applecart has not been toppled quite yet, Mrs May can scarcely be impervious to the biggest rebellion she has faced as Prime Minister.
No fewer than 14 Tories voted against the government, and they included Guto Bebb, a defence minister, who effectively resigned his frontbench role by joining the rebels. In a constitutional irony, indeed a remarkable instance of floor coordination, three Labour rebels voted with the government in order to avoid a humiliating defeat on a Brexit bill, which had divided her party around her strategy for leaving the European Union. Beyond ensuring that the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016 attains fruition, it is hard not to wonder whether she is no less crucially engaged in an essay towards the reunification of the Conservative party on this issue.
The facts are simply stated. On Wednesday, the government defeated an amendment that was introduced by its own “backbench MPs” to a future trade policy bill. It would have kept Britain in a Customs Union with the EU if it failed to agree to a free trade deal. If the amendment had been passed, it would have thrown the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy into disarray. In consequence, this would have ramped up the pressure on the beleaguered leader. Again, had the amendment been carried, it would have placed “massive restrictions” on its freedom to forge an “independent trade policy” once Britain.