All Bark and No Bite: The Tory ‘Rebels’ Fail Again

The government has survived another crunch vote on Brexit as Tory remainers initiate another embarrassing climb-down after a week of fiery rhetoric. Excitable talk about the Tory ‘rebels’ has been a central focus in politics recently but is seeming increasingly unfounded as they continually fail to unite against the government’s Brexit plans.

Intense debates have emerged over the desire among Tory remainers for a ‘meaningful vote’ amendment on the EU withdrawal bill. This means that rather than being forced to choose between the government’s negotiated deal and a ‘no-deal’ Brexit (which effectively forces parliament to accept the deal which will clearly be preferable to no deal at all), parliament should have the power to direct the government to re-enter negotiations if dissatisfied with the deal on offer.

At the centre of this has been Dominic Grieve – who in the past week has tabled two amendments on the need for a meaningful vote – and then refused to vote for either of them after long debates with the party whips. The latest amendment was defeated by 16 votes, with only 6 Tory MPs voting in favour after Grieve’s U-turn.

Grieve’s U-turn supposedly comes from concerns amongst the rebels about collapsing the government – a weak and unconvincing excuse considering Labour’s commitment not to trigger a no-confidence motion in the case of a government defeat on the amendment to reassure Tory rebels.

The concessions made to Grieve have been heavily debated but seem to have achieved relatively little for both sides. The original compromise on a meaningful vote was retracted, and now the possibility of amending the ‘meaningful’ vote apparently lies with the speaker – based on vague government guidelines published on the issue to appease Grieve.

On one hand, this can be of comfort to the Tory ‘rebels’, who can expect to rely on speaker Bercow’s support on issues relating to Brexit (he has made no secret of his opposition to Brexit). But two issues arise from this:

Firstly, debates over the speaker’s powers mean his ability to grant amendments to change the course of the Brexit negotiations is far from guaranteed.

Secondly, there is no guarantee Bercow will be in place in a year’s time when the vote occurs. Bercow is close to reaching his self-imposed commitment of only serving nine years as speaker and has been mired in scandals about accusations of bullying his staff. While Bercow remains safe for now thanks to broad support from backbenchers and the Labour front-bench, sympathetic politicians will likely find it increasingly hard to defend Bercow as Brexiteers inevitably speed up their campaign to remove him as speaker.

Aside from the technicalities of the compromises between the government and Tory remainers the wider issue remains that while the vocal rebels are more than happy to speak out against the government, they continually refuse to oppose the government in practice.

Grieve hit the headlines this week after discussing the possibility of his amendment bringing down the government. Excitable journalists discussed the possibility of the collapse of the government (as they seem to do every week). However, this speculation was yet again unfounded as Grieve disowned both of his original amendments.

The Tory rebels are being continually exposed as all bark and no bite. There are certainly enough potential rebels to defeat the government and achieve their desired goal of Brexit damage limitation, but time and time again they refuse to follow through and kick the issues further back down the parliamentary agenda.

May’s government has survived months of fruitless debates over the customs union, the single market and now two subsequent amendments on a meaningful vote – despite potential majority support in parliament for all of these proposals.

Tory remainers are quickly losing all credibility in parliament. Constant U-turns, unsatisfactory compromises and a general lack of conviction are seriously undermining their cause. While the Brexiteer wing of the party has put huge concerted pressure on May and won numerous concessions on Brexit, the Tory remainers have capitulated to the government at almost every opportunity. They are setting a dangerous precedent, where neither May nor the whips will take their concerns seriously if they are simply not prepared to back up their own stated positions.

It is becoming increasingly clear that hopes for a ‘soft-Brexit’ should not be pinned on this group of MPs. While some (like Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke) have been fairly consistent in their opposition to the government on Brexit, the majority of Tory remainers have proved themselves to be politically weak and unreliable; all too happy to oppose Brexit in theory but not in practice.

Since Grieve and his allies are unable to unite over an issue as simple as a meaningful vote in parliament, it would be unwise to expect anything but further capitulation from the Tory backbenches.

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