David Davis has form when it comes to taking a more bullish view than recent Chief Whips. Last year, he fell out with Gavin Williamson over Labour’s use of a Humble Address motion to force the release of information about the potential impact of Brexit. Williamson argued that it wouldn’t necessarily be binding on the Government. Davis believed otherwise. The then Chief Whip got his way – with sticky consequences for the Brexit Secretary.
But there was more to the disagreement than a dispute about the consequences of a motion. At its heart were different approaches to how the Government should manage the Commons. Williamson tended to think that risks shouldn’t be taken. This approach ensured that he never lost a vote on Government business as Chief Whip. Davis took the view that administrations with no majorities will sometimes be defeated in the lobbies – and that, in any event, fear of losing makes whips too cautious. There is a case for both takes.
At any rate, these tensions flared up again last Tuesday with another piece of business, the Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, and a new Chief Whip, Julian Smith.
Smith believed that Dominic Grieve might have enough votes to ensure the passing of an amendment to the Bill which sought to head off a No Deal Brexit. So Robert Buckland offered concessions to Grieve during the debate from the front bench. (There is now ferocious disagreement between Grieve and his supporters and Downing Street about whether or not the Prime Minister has reneged on private assurances given to them about considering part of his amendment.)
Davis took a more gung-ho view. Once again, he thought that the whips were being too timid. He also believes that a concession too many would wreck his Bill. Sure, backing down might enable it to get through Parliament. But what would be the point if the Commons was consequently empowered, in effect, to direct Ministers – thus taking over the Brexit negotiation, and potentially blocking a No Deal outcome? The EU would simply sit on its hands during talks with Ministers, and wait for MPs to take them over.
Davis thus moved to limit the concessions. Opening the debate, he set out three tests for any new amendments to be agreed with Grieve and his supporters.
“First, we must never do anything that undermines the Government’s negotiating position, or encourages delays in the negotiations,” he told the Commons. “Secondly, we cannot change the fundamental constitutional structure, which makes the Government responsible for international relations and international treaties. Thirdly, we must – under all circumstances – respect the result of the referendum.” Crucially, Davis insisted on the Government holding out against the part of Grieve’s amendment that allowed for “direction”.
Grieve’s backers blame the Brexit Secretary for Theresa May, as they see it, not delivering on separate commitments that she gave them over his amendment. “Instead of government we have centres of power,” one told ConservativeHome. “You come to a sensible agreement and it is dismantled at the last minute by a power centre. It is a bit like negotiating with Iran. The consequence is that trust erodes entirely. And it is unrestorable by a private discussion with the PM because she cannot deliver on private assurances.”
The sum of all this as we write is that Davis is getting his way. If the Lords send the Grieve amendment to the Commons next week, Tory MPs are set to be whipped against it. Second time round, the Brexit Secretary is where he wants to be – for the moment, anyway.
It is a high-risk gamble. On Tuesday, the Government overturned Lord Hailsham’s amendment, which also sought to allow the Commons to direct Ministers over Brexit in certain circumstances, by a majority of fourteen. Would Grieve have had that number of votes in his pocket for his amendment? We suspect that he would have done. Will he have them next week if it comes to the Commons from the Lords, and is put to a vote?
It is impossible to tell. On the one hand, concessions now offered in a Government amendment, as first indicated by Buckland on Tuesday, may go far enough to satisfy enough of Grieve’s friends. On the other, claims that the Prime Minister is effectively powerless to act on her assurances, and that the Brexit Secretary now rules the roost, may solidify the rebels behind the Beaconsfield MP. The Government will also signal for help to the small band of Labour Brexiteers on the opposition benches.
Davis was much mocked the week before last for first threatening to resign and then backing off (not, his critics said, for the first time). He certainly seems not to have got everything he wanted on the so-called “backstop” – the most visible cause of his dissatisfaction.
But a broader view shows a second win for him in a fortnight. First, he obtained from May the promise of a Cabinet summit in July at Chequers to finalise the Government’s negotiating position (at long last). Second, he is set to face Grieve down next week – or try to. This firming up of the Government’s position has cheered Brexiteers up. However, a weekend plus a few days is a long time in politics. Watch for further twists and turns, confrontations and concessions, before the Commons considers the Bill again next Wednesday.
Furthermore, the Withdrawal Bill is only part of the Brexit story. On the Irish border, the backstop, the consequent commitment to the Common External Tariff, the cramping which that implies of future trade deals, plus the following of Single Market rules, the Government’s position is a long way away from where many pro-Brexit Tory MPs want it to be. Meanwhile, the EU has its own reasons for disliking it – believing that, if implemented, it would drive a coach and horses through the four freedoms.
Finally, a vote on the Grieve amendment, or something like it, poses a dramatic question. “The whips have been told to get the votes,” one backer of Davis’ stance told ConHome. But what will Ministers do if they lose? Could they threaten to make such a vote a matter of confidence – with all that implies? But if so, how, given the Fixed Terms Parliament Act?