Despite being offered a last-minute concession by ministers, Tory rebels sealed the government’s first defeat on Brexit legislation by backing an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that secured a “meaningful” vote for MPs at the end of the Brexit process.
The amendment, pushed forward by the Conservative former attorney general Dominic Grieve and passed by 309 votes to 305, removed the government’s ability to implement the final deal by ministerial order without the full scrutiny of parliament.
Mrs May now faces travelling to Brussels today, where EU leaders will gather to sign off the end of the first phase of negotiations, knowing that her room for manoeuvre has been curtailed by the chastening defeat.
There was last-minute drama as Justice Minister Dominic Raab offered to amend the bill in the final moments of Commons debate, ensuring that no statutory instrument approved under the controversial clause nine of the Withdrawal Bill would take effect until parliament had voted.
But his intervention was greeted with shouts of “too late” by MPs on his own side and it was too little to fully satisfy Conservative rebels.
A group of 11 that included Mr Grieve voted for the amendment. The Scottish Tory MP Paul Masterton abstained, helping give rebels a narrow victory that was cheered on the opposition benches.
As the vote was being taken, the East Renfrewshire MP tweeted: “I said I wanted a guarantee of a meaningful vote on the face of the bill. At the last minute, the minister has given a meaningful concession. On that basis I am abstaining.”
Mr Grieve had warned ministers they had “run out of road” and drew upon Winston Churchill’s spirit as he said he intended to put “country before his party”.
One of the other rebels, Nicky Morgan, tweeted: “Tonight parliament took control of the EU withdrawal process.”
Mrs May immediately attempted to reassert her authority following the vote by sacking Conservative MP Stephen Hammond as party vice-chairman after he voted in favour of the amendment.
Mr Hammond said earlier: “It gives me no pleasure to vote against the government, but I’ve made it very clear that for me this was a point of principle and just occasionally in one’s life one has to put principle before party.”
A government spokeswoman said the defeat would not stop it from implementing Brexit, but opposition parties said the Prime Minister had been humiliated.
The spokeswoman said: “We are disappointed that parliament has voted for this amendment despite the strong assurances that we have set out.
“We are as clear as ever that this bill and the powers within it are essential.
“This amendment does not prevent us from preparing our statute book for exit day. We will now determine whether further changes are needed to the bill to ensure it fulfils its vital purpose.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “This defeat is a humiliating loss of authority for the government on the eve of the European Council meeting.
“Labour has made the case since the referendum for a meaningful vote in parliament on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
“Theresa May has resisted democratic accountability. Her refusal to listen means she will now have to accept parliament taking back control.”
The SNP’s Stephen Gethins said: “The Tories need to learn a lesson and listen following this defeat.
“The Tories hopeless divisions have been exposed with Brexiteers arguing that leaving the EU was about getting sovereignty back to Westminster. This convinced Tory rebels to break ranks with their beleaguered prime minister – still stumbling from crisis to crisis.”