Theresa May has narrowly survived a Government defeat on Brexit as the Tory party’s bitter civil war over Europe exploded into life once more with the resignation of a pro-Remain minister.
MPs voted by 305 to 302 to support an amendment to the Trade Bill that seeks to unpick a key plank of the Prime Minister’s plans for a ‘soft’ exit from the EU.
But within minutes of the narrow victory, May was rocked by a fresh resignation, this time of her defence minister Guto Bebb, who voted with Labour to oppose the Government.
Tabled by former minister Priti Patel, the amendment ensures that HM Revenue and Customs would not collect EU countries’ tariffs under a customs partnership, without “a reciprocal arrangement” with Brussels.
Conservative ‘Remainer rebels’, led by Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, decided to vote against the amendment after May appeared to side with Brexiteer backbenchers.
The Government majority of just three votes underlined how tight the PM’s position now is. She relied on Labour Brexiteer MPs Kate Hoey, Frank Field and Graham Stringer to avoid defeat.
In all, 14 Tories rebelled against their own Government.
Soubry and others were furious that the PM appeared to be prepared to tear up central features of the ‘Chequers’ compromise plan that sparked the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson last week.
They hit out after ministers caved to intense pressure from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 80-strong European Research Group of Brexiteers, accepting four amendments that sought to harden May’s approach.
Bebb, who campaigned to stay in the EU, has been scathing in recent weeks about Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt after they tried to play down business worries about Brexit.
Hunt had said it was ‘inappropriate’ for the boss of plane manufacturer Airbus to warn it could close factories in the UK if May pursued the wrong kind of exit from the EU.
Bebb said at the time: “The dismissive attitudes shown towards our business community by senior Cabinet ministers is both unworthy and inflammatory.
“Do the leadership aspirations of multi-millionaires trump the need to listen to the employers and employees of this country?”
Labour’s Chuka Umunna said: “It’s good to see a minister putting his country before his party and his career. More should follow his example.
“This is a question of who governs Britain: the Tory backbench Brexiteers or the people? More and more Tory MPs are saying it should be the people not some hard Right minority”.
Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Commons Health Select Committee expressed her fury.
Former Education Secretary Justine Greening called on Monday for a second referendum on Brexit.
In a sign of just how divisive the issue now is, Soubry was personally derided by fellow Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh as ‘no Margaret Thatcher’.
The Tory grandee, an arch Eurosceptic, had seized on Soubry’s praise of the former Prime Minister.
“I knew Margaret thatcher, I worked for Margaret thatcher. The hon lady ain’t no Margaret Thatcher,” he said.
Former minister Nicky Morgan slammed Leigh in return, saying: “Pathetic! Is that the best you can do?”
MP after MP then clashed on the Tory benches during the debate on the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill.
Soubry herself was withering about May’s decision to cave in to pressure, saying ministers “should be shaking their heads with shame”.
“This is the stuff of complete madness. And the only reason that the government has accepted these amendments is because it is frightened of somewhere in the region of 40 members of parliament - the hard, no deal Brexiteers, who should have been seen off a long time ago and should be seen off.”
Grieve had called the amendments a form of “bullying” of the PM by hardline backbenchers.
In what was seen as a sign of growing unease in No.10, the Government also tabled a motion seeking to give MPs an early summer holiday, amid fears that a Tory leadership challenge could be imminent.
A Labour source told HuffPost: “Theresa May sounds like she is running scared of her own MPs. She’s caved in to Brexiteers meaning her Chequers negotiation has not lasted a week.
“Now we find out she wants Parliament to rise nearly a week early so there can’t be time for a vote of no confidence. She’s in office but not in power.”