The attempt to secure a “meaningful vote” that potentially could have given MPs the power to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal has been defeated.
The final obstacle to the EU withdrawal bill was removed as MPs voted 303 to 319 against an amendment that had been tabled by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve – before he accepted government reassurances about its respect for the power of MPs to hold it to account.
At least five Tory rebels – Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Antoinette Sandbach, as well as Dr Philip Lee who resigned last week to vote against the government – held out against the compromise that Labour MPs dismissed as meaningless.
Grieve was accused by one angry Labour backbencher of behaving like the Grand old Duke of York. “You can’t keep marching the troops up the hill and down again and keep your integrity,” George Howarth said.
The bill will return to the Lords later on Wednesday and is expected to be on the statute book within days.
Amid a welter of procedural technicalities about the powers of MPs and the potential role of the judges, Grieve – who had said he woke up in the small hours worrying that his actions would cause the the government’s collapse – withdrew his support for his own amendment.
As part of the process, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, tabled a written statement recognising the authority of MPs to hold the government to account, and saying that it would be for the Speaker to decide at the time whether any government motion could be amended. The government proposal would have ruled out amendment altogether.
Labour protested that the concession was meaningless, and other Tory rebels were unconvinced.
One Tory backbencher, Antoinette Sandbach, said the amendment could not bind the government’s hands because negotiations would be over by the time MPs were voting.
“Not to have a process in place should negotiations collapse would be irresponsible. And what is more, this amendment will ensure that when the PM sits down to negotiate, she does so with the full backing of parliament. Far from binding the prime minister, it strengthens her hand.”
By averting the rebellion rather than outvoting the Tory rebels, their support on major issues such as membership of a customs union or the single market remains untested.
Brexiters had wanted to see the rebels defeated to strengthen the government’s hand in future debates. One rebel, Sarah Wollaston, described the moment as “a battle for the soul of Brexit”.
The rebels had wanted to ensure that MPs had a meaningful vote if there was no deal by 21 January next year.
But Davis told MPs that if the option of no deal was taken off the table, it became more likely. He said whenever MPs challenged the government, the negotiations slowed down.
“When they believe we might be forced to change our position to suit them, they stall. We cannot allow such an approach to become commonplace across all negotiations.”
Rebels, led by the former attorney general Grieve, had argued that MPs were entitled to a say on what should happen if there was no deal with the 27 EU member states with only weeks to go before the formal departure debate on 29 March.
But Grieve said he accepted the prime minister was concerned that it would weaken her hand at the negotiating table if she appeared to be at the mercy of her MPs.
“Having finally obtained, I have to say with a little bit more difficulty than I would have wished, the obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place over the executive in black and white language I am prepared to accept the government’s difficulty and support it,” he said.
“I am prepared to accept the government’s difficulty and in the circumstances to accept the form of amendment it wants.”
Other rebels had already conceded.