While a handful of Tory rebels celebrated after defeating the British government over Brexit, the real party was being held at the other end of the parliamentary estate. After the vote, some Labour MPs glided back to Jeremy Corbyn’s office for celebrations that lasted well into the night; there were reports of them toasting their new Tory accomplices. And this is why so many Conservatives have been so angry: They sense not just rebellion but outright betrayal.
Prime Minister Theresa May did not much mind her parliamentary defeat. Parliament’s full permission for a Brexit has already been given and no other vote is required. That is what the fuss with the Supreme Court was all about. The vote for Article 50 was the big one, and it serves to eject the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU) by March 29, 2019, whether or not there is a deal — and whether or not Parliament likes it. What has changed, now, is that MPs have made sure they will have the chance to vote on whether to approve whatever deal the Prime Minister negotiates — but it is all a bit tokenistic. If they do not approve, then Britain leaves with no deal at all.
You can see why MPs are feeling a little aggrieved about all this. What they think about leaving the EU does not really matter anymore, which is why they were fighting to get back in the conversation. And revelling in the new roles that Brexit has allotted to them.
The punch-up has been a long time in coming. We can expect to hear quite a lot from Tory mutineers in the next few weeks. But how much damage might they really do? Only two, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry, are genuinely out to thwart Brexit but lack the opportunity to do so. Most have no coherent agenda at all, they just think they ought to make life difficult for the government. They are picking their battles — and, I have to admit, making some fairly decent arguments in the process.
A great many powers are being repatriated from Brussels and it’s not entirely clear that the Government knows what to do with them. One of the rebels’ main themes is that Parliament is needed to scrutinise these new powers. For example: bad, fractured regulation was one of the main causes of the financial crash of 2007. If Brexit ends up creating a financial regulatory monster, with the wrong powers in the wrong hands, then the conditions for the next crash will be set. With this in mind, the Tory rebels can argue that standing up to the government is not about subverting Brexit, but rather about securing the best kind of Brexit.
Some of the rebels say that their real concern is Corbyn. It’s one thing allowing the Conservative Government to acquire huge, unchecked powers as a result of Brexit. But what happens if Labour ends up in charge? John McDonnell would be delighted if, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had powers to direct a massive post-Brexit financial regulator without anyone in parliament to hold him back. So in most cases, this is seen as a kind of loyal mutiny: Making sure that Brexit does not deform British government.
Much of the rebellion is just about putting down a marker, to remind the government that it needs to keep being afraid of parliament. So the more trivial the law, the more likely the rebellion. When there’s a pointless, symbolic amendment — such as asking parliament to set an exact date for Brexit — then the government may well lose the vote. But the important Brexit votes are all going rather well. The government has been winning them by a majority of about 20 seats, twice its actual majority.
It will be raucous, unedifying at times, and involve much more parliamentary drama — but this is precisely what Brexit is all about.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Fraser Nelson is the editor of the Spectator and a senior columnist for the Daily Telegraph.