Who really backed down over Brexit vote?

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

  • Published
Media caption,

Liam Fox tells Laura Kuenssberg rebels have not changed Brexit stance

Who blinked? Maybe both sides did, a bit.

Lots will be said and written in the next 24 hours about who really backed down after another day of shenanigans in Parliament - whips cornering potential rebels, even today, the grim sight of a Labour MP being forced to come to vote while visibly ill in a wheelchair and on morphine, the Tories so nervous about the vote that they suspended the normal rules that allow for ill MPs to stay out of the Chamber.

As Westminster games go, it is getting pretty extreme.

But ultimately, your view on whether the compromise had a winner, may depend on the side you are on.

Both sides of course will claim they were the victor, the haggling over a deal took so long because both sides wanted to save face.

The cabinet minister Liam Fox has just told us that nothing has really changed, it was just "procedural" and the fundamentals were exactly the same.

In contrast, one of the organisers of the rebel group, Stephen Hammond, tweeted that the government has now conceded that Parliament would have a "real say with no constraints", if the final Brexit deal is rejected.

The two sides will, guess what, continue to argue it for weeks to come, and every insult, every rankle, every cross word on this episode, being remembered in the difficult months to come.

Here are two things however that are hard to dispute.

The government was worried enough about losing today to budge, even if they only gave an inch.

It might be a concession that only really parliamentary lawyers understand, but the PM had to move, again, despite not wanting to.

And despite the fact that she did compromise even in a meaningless way (yes I can't believe that I did just write that sentence, but it is relevant), the vote was still relatively close, certainly not comfortable enough for the government to relax any time soon.

What's also the case is that the Tory rebels, or potential rebels more like, weren't willing to take dramatic action in enough number to humiliate the PM.

The vote result suggests that they have the hypothetical numbers, but their critics, and their internal opponents in the Tory party would question if they really have the guts.

The former boss of the Treasury, Nick McPherson, no fan of Brexit it's important to say, has just acidly written online: "Axiom of the last 30 years. Europhile Tories always compromise to preserve party unity, Their opponents don't. #thatswhywearewhereweare"

But the last 24 hours has also been frustrating for Brexiteers.

Many of them believe that Theresa May didn't have to push it this far, that she could have faced down the potential rebels without having to give any ground.

There are many behind the scenes urging Number 10 to take a firmer line, to dare them to vote against her.

Not the Parliamentary arithmetic, but the Tories' own arithmetic, makes them believe that she'd be easily able to do so, to end it once and for all and make plain that Brexiteers are the dominant force.

But to face down the rebels who want to maintain closer ties to the EU or the Brexiteers would require the prime minister to risk something that she wants to avoid - to make the splits in Tory party more exposed, to make one side of the party the overt winner.

For many months she has survived by tacking first an inch one way, and then the other.

Today's events with a non-compromise-compromise suggest she is simply not ready to abandon that approach.

But with so many more difficult decisions to come in the next few months, on both sides, Tories are more and more frustrated that she refuses to choose.

One observes that Number 10 might believe the "lesson of Maastricht", is to try everything to keep the Tory party together, but the truth they suggest is that the real lesson of Maastricht is that any war is only over when one side is the clear victor.

The trouble is, another source suggested, she never wants to say no to anyone, but when it comes to doing this deal, she simply can't say yes to everyone.