How May’s Brexit deal laid bare Tories’ deep divisions over Europe

Theresa May addresses MPs in the Commons

Throughout yet another neuralgic day of Brexit debate at Westminster, the deep divisions in the Conservative party were again on excruciating display.

Collective responsibility has long been suspended, as shifting groups of ministers and backbenchers pursue their own favoured Brexit outcome. But the chaotic votes of Wednesday night smacked of a government falling apart.

First, six cabinet ministers most notable for their leadership ambitions – Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Alun Cairns, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid – supported the Malthouse compromise, a policy that would involve junking the deal their own government had spent two years negotiating.


Brexit no-deal vote: a brief timeline of chaos

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7pm Caroline Spelman declines to move her amendment aimed at taking a no-deal Brexit off the table for good – but Yvette Cooper, one of the other signatories, moves it instead.

7.16pm MPs back the amendment by 312 votes to 308, defeating the government.

7.21pm Word gets out that the government now plans to whip against its main no-deal motion because it has been amended to rule out no-deal in all circumstances. Rumours begin to fly of ministers being ready to resign to defy the whip.

7.33pm MPs reject the Malthouse compromise – an amendment in favour of a managed no-deal Brexit – by 374 votes to 164.

7.42pm Tory whips attempt to force MPs to vote against the amended motion they had effectively already backed. A number of cabinet ministers now reported to be abstaining.

7.49pm May is defeated again – with the margin of loss increasing from four to 43.

7.55pm May tells MPs that if they do not back a deal soon she will have to seek a long article 50 extension.

8.01pm Names emerge of government ministers – including Amber Rudd and David Gauke – who abstained on the vote, amid continuing rumours that they could be forced to resign.

8.09pm Sarah Newton, a junior pensions minister, resigns after defying the whip to vote against the government.

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And then a separate group of cabinet ministers, David Mundell, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke, abstained in the face of a three-line whip, rather than vote against the amended motion taking no deal off the table.

Sources close to the group later claimed that when ministers gathered for an informal cabinet meeting shortly before the votes, neither the chief whip, Julian Smith, nor Theresa May herself were aware of the risk of a defeat.

The European Research Group’s Jacob Rees-Mogg later called for the abstainers to resign or be sacked. “Collective responsibility requires ministers to support government policy or to resign. It is a basic constitutional point,” he said.

Several more junior ministers opted to vote for the motion, in defiance of the whips. One, Sarah Newton, a junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, immediately resigned.

A grim-faced Smith was spotted shortly afterwards on the corridor next to the whips’ office, consulting with May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.


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