Henry Mance, George Parker and Jim Pickard in London
Japanese prime minister ‘in full support of the draft withdrawal agreement’
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said the “whole world” wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit, as he became the first world leader to visit the UK and lobby for Theresa May’s deal.
With just five days until a key parliamentary vote, Mr Abe gave Mrs May a rare boost by offering Japan’s “full support” for the UK-EU withdrawal agreement.
Mrs May is facing heavy defeat in the vote, having already lost two procedural votes on Brexit this week. On Thursday two Conservative MPs who had previously indicated they would oppose her deal said they would back it — but the prime minister has just five days to win over dozens more.
Mr Abe expressed hope that Japan’s relationship with the UK would be reinforced after Brexit, calling the UK “the gateway to the European markets”.
“We truly hope that a no-deal Brexit will be avoided and in fact that is the whole wish of the whole world,” he said. “The world is watching the UK as it exits the European Union.” Japan’s companies, including carmaker Nissan, are big investors in the UK.
But, adding to the headwinds facing Mrs May, Richard Dearlove, the former head of the MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, urged MPs to reject her deal, arguing that it would “threaten that national security of the country in fundamental ways”.
Sir Richard and former chief of the defence staff Charles Guthrie said they were concerned about Mrs May’s commitment to a “deep and special” defence relationship with the EU.
Earlier on Thursday, strains in Mrs May’s cabinet were also exposed when Greg Clark, business secretary, said a no-deal Brexit would be a “disaster”, but defence secretary Gavin Williamson disagreed, saying, “We will survive and we will prosper because Britain is a brilliant country, with brilliant people.”
Environment secretary Michael Gove warned that leaving the EU without a deal would cause “economic turbulence”.
The parliamentary arithmetic in Westminster appears to have changed little since Mrs May delayed a vote on her deal last month. George Freeman, the former head of Mrs May’s policy board, announced in the House of Commons that he had reversed in his opposition to Mrs May’s deal and would now support it “with a heavy heart”. Trudy Harrison, another Conservative MP who had vowed to oppose Mrs May’s plan, also announced she would back the deal because the risk of a no-deal was too big.
Neither Mr Freeman nor Ms Harrison are seen as hardcore Eurosceptics but it was the first sign of movement in a bloc of more than 100 Tory MPs who had previously said they would oppose her deal.
The government has yet to publish additional assurances from the EU about the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid checks on the Irish border. Those assurances could arrive at the weekend, or on Monday, although few in Westminster expect them to alter the terms of the debate.
Hardline Brexit MPs say they remain solidly opposed to the deal and downplay the chances of that approach leading to Britain remaining in the EU.
In a nod to the Democratic Unionist party, the government also announced how it will replace £300m of planned EU funding for Northern Ireland between 2021 and 2027. The move is unlikely to placate the DUP’s concerns over the withdrawal deal, but seems timed to rebuild trust between the party and the Conservatives.
If Mrs May’s deal is defeated, MPs are likely to manoeuvre quickly to try to control the subsequent timetable. Much will depend on the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who on Wednesday infuriated the government by allowing a vote on a pro-EU amendment that appeared to go against parliamentary precedent.
The prime minister herself criticised Mr Bercow on Thursday saying that MPs “need to know there is a set of rules”. If defeated on Tuesday, she will have less than a week to present a plan B to parliament — and is expected to put that plan to a vote by Friday January 25.
Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels
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