May pursuing 'high-risk strategy' over Brexit, warn rebel Tories

Prime minister Theresa May

Theresa May is pursuing a "high-risk strategy" by seeking to deny MPs the chance to block a no-deal Brexit, leading pro-EU Conservatives have warned.

The government provoked the anger of Tory Remainers yesterday with proposals which they say fall well short of the truly meaningful vote they are seeking on the way forward if Parliament rejects the agreement obtained by Mrs May with Brussels or if no deal is reached by January 21.

Conservative MPs are now accusing other members of Mrs May's government of "hijacking" the process to force the prime minister to backtrack at the last minute on a pledge to ensure their concerns were addressed.

And after successfully averting rebellion earlier this week, Mrs May is now facing the prospect of defeat when the issue returns to the Commons next Wednesday.

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve believed an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which the rebels could back had been agreed with the government before he boarded the train to Caernarfon to take part in BBC1's Question Time last night.

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But he branded the amendment finally published by DExEU hours later "unacceptable", because it offered MPs a "meaningless" vote in the case of a no-deal Brexit, allowing them to note the situation but not to determine what should happen next.

The move was branded a "very serious betrayal" by former minister Anna Soubry and "sneaky" by chairwoman of the Commons Health Committee Sarah Wollaston.

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And Eddisbury MP Antoinette Sandbach told Sky News today: "What seems to have happened is very late in the day that DExEU got involved and it looks like the process was hijacked.

"David Davis has sent out an email to the Lords which does not reflect the position and I would say is almost misleading in the way that it's framed.

"It was quite clear that there were positive and constructive discussions that were taking place and in that very last hour something changed and there was no communication, no further discussion.

"I think it's a very high-risk strategy."

Peers are now to debate the Government proposals on Monday, along with a rival amendment tabled by Lord Hailsham, which revives Mr Grieve's proposal for MPs to be enabled to direct the government on what to do if no Brexit deal has been secured by February.

In what threatens to be a bloody round of "parliamentary ping-pong", amendments backed by the Lords will bounce back to the Commons on Wednesday.

Another Conservative former minister, Stephen Hammond, voiced confidence that the PM would "honour her word" to a group of 15-20 MPs whom she persuaded not to rebel on the Grieve amendment earlier this week.

Mr Hammond told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he expected talks on the issue to continue, adding: "I'm sure and I'm convinced the prime minister intends to honour her word.

"What I think has happened is some people in the government may have got involved in the process late in the day, people who weren't at that meeting, people who hadn't been involved earlier in the negotiations and who may unfortunately have hijacked the process."

A Downing Street spokeswoman declined to comment on what was said at Mrs May's meeting with the rebels on Tuesday.

"The prime minister listened to those across the House who called for the ability to express their views in a 'no deal' scenario and we put forward an amendment which will be debated next week," said the spokeswoman.

"From our perspective, the amendment respects the tests set out by the prime minister and the Brexit secretary."

Solicitor general Robert Buckland acknowledged that previous versions of the amendment had existed until the prime minister decided on the final proposal yesterday afternoon.

"There were various iterations of the motion, yes, there were times in the day when we were looking at different iterations," he told Sky News.

"The prime minister had a choice to make, she was given a range of options, she has delivered on the promise that she made."

He added: "I have not lied, certainly not. I promised them that I would deal in good faith, we looked at iterations, they have been involved in the process - as have other colleagues - and in the end a decision was made by the government to table the motion in these terms."

While there may be "political consequences" from the vote promised under the amendment, "this particular approach does not tie the hands of the government in the way that the original amendment that was proposed by Dominic Grieve and others did".

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