Theresa May survives knife-edge customs union vote

Threats and bribes win the day, but government loses unexpected vote on EU medicines regulation

Cardboard cutouts of Tory Brexit rebels outside parliament last month
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Theresa May survived a knife-edge Commons vote on the customs union last night, but only after Tory rebels were warned that their amendment would trigger a confidence vote which could bring down the government.

MPs voted 307 to 301 to overturn an amendment, tabled by Tory Remainers Nicky Morgan and Stephen Hammond, that would have forced Britain to join a customs union with the EU if no agreement were reached on frictionless trade by 21 January 2019.

In extraordinary scenes, the trade minister George Hollingbery engaged in open negotiations with the customs union rebels from the dispatch box, offering them a Lords amendment for a “customs arrangement” backstop if they backed down.

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There were also reports of more unsavoury tactics deployed by Tory whips in the run up to the vote.

Newnsight’s political editor Nick Watt tweeted that the government chief whip, Julian Smith, had warned rebel Tory MPs he would called a confidence vote in the government today were pro-Europeans to win the customs union vote.

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It appears the last minute carrot-and-stick double-team by Tory whips was just enough to pressure some rebels to back the government, although the climbdown, one of several by Tory Remainers over the past year, drew criticism from several quarters.

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The vote also demonstrated the vital importance of the four or five Labour Brexiteers who have repeatedly defied their own party whip and voted with the government.

Their significance was highlighted in a surprise defeat for the government on only their second piece of Brexit legislation, with MPs voting 305 to 301 on a rebel amendment that would lead to the UK remaining under EU medicines regulation.

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The Guardian says the customs union vote means the prime minister has “avoided all-out Tory civil war and the wrath of the Eurosceptic wing of the party less than 24 hours after she capitulated to concessions that they believed had killed off her Chequers plan”.

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However, The Daily Telegraph was slightly less sanguine, saying “the impact of the vote will become clear in the coming days, but the bad feeling among Conservative MPs is unlikely to subside after this”.

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