ANALYSIS: Theresa May's Brexit date climbdown could be her biggest humiliation yet

Posted On: 
16th December 2017

Theresa May's humiliations as Prime Minister have been so numerous that it's easy to be pretty non-plussed when another one comes along.

Theresa May tried - and failed - to turn the amendment into a test of strength.
Credit: 
PA Images

But her decision to climb down on putting the Brexit date on the face of the EU Withdrawal Bill stands out in a crowded field.

It was barely a month ago - 9 November to be precise - when May had her big play, just as MPs were preparing to scrutinise her government's flagship legislation.

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She revealed in the Daily Telegraph - along with the Express and Mail the most staunchly pro-Brexit title on Fleet Street - that she was laying an amendment to the draft law making it a legal requirement for Britain to depart the EU at 11pm on 29 March, 2019.

Laying down the gauntlet to the Leave-sceptics in her own party, the PM declared: "We will not tolerate attempts from any quarter to use the process of amendments to this Bill as a mechanism to try to block the democratic wishes of the British people by attempting to slow down or stop our departure from the European Union.

"Let no-one doubt our determination or question our resolve, Brexit is happening. It will be there in black and white on the front page of this historic piece of legislation."

Brexit Secretary David Davis piled in, saying it would make "crystal clear" that the UK would not maintain its EU membership for a single second longer than necessary.

The dramatic move conveniently ignored the fact that the two-year Article 50 process - which Mrs May triggered on 30 March, 2017 - already made it fairly obvious when Britain would be leaving.

In truth, the purpose of the amendment was plain for all to see. Remain-voting Mrs May needed to burnish her Leave credentials with the anti-EU wing of her party, while also winning plaudits from the Brexit press. Job done, it seemed.

It quickly became clear, however, that it had the potential to be yet another self-inflicted wound. Critics pointed out that the amendment was needless and could even hamper the Prime Minister's negotiating strategy if, for whatever reason, a short extension to the talks is required.

The first inkling that a climbdown could be in the offing came on 16 November, when Justice Secretary David Lidington said the Government would "listen to ideas coming from colleagues across the House" before pushing the amendment to a vote.

"All that that clause was designed to do was clarify, put beyond doubt, what is already inherent in the wording of Article 50," he rather sensibly added.

Downing Street initially did nothing to hose down the notion that a climbdown was in the offing. And maybe if Mrs May had withdrawn it then, her embarrassment may have been fleeting.

But instead, the decision was taken to tough it out and try to face her critics down. As the bill proceeded through the Commons unamended, it seemed as if her plan was working. MPs accepted that the legislation was not perfect, but seemed unwilling to inflict a meaningful defeat on the Government.

That all changed on Wednesday evening, when 11 Tory MPs helped ensure a 309-305 reverse for ministers on whether there should be a meaningful Commons vote on the final Brexit deal.

Having had a taste of rebellion, those rebels - some of whom were photographed toasting their success in the grand surroundings of the Pugin Room - warned that they were ready to do it again over the Brexit date.

The Times reported yesterday morning that a climbdown was on the cards, but No10 insisted there was "no change". by 11am, however, a spokesman for the PM was striking a noticeably more emollient tone. The Government was, he said, ready to be "pragmatic" in its approach.

Come 5pm, the capitulation was complete when the Government admitted it was willing to support a rival amendment in the name of Oliver Letwin which would keep the date on the face of the bill, but give parliament the power to extend the deadline if necessary, and with the backing of the rest of the EU. Crucially, rebel leader Dominic Grieve announced that the proposal met their concerns and they would vote for it.

The upshot is that the Prime Minister will avoid another Commons defeat just as MPs return to their constituencies for Christmas.

But, like winter snow, the "strong and stable" reputation May is desperate to cultivate as Prime Minister continues to melt awa before our eyes.