May makes last-ditch Brexit move ahead of key vote
Last Modified: 02:16 PM, Wed Jan 09, 2019

Henry Mance and George Parker in London 09 January 2019
Offer of backstop veto after MPs force government to come up with ‘Plan B’

Theresa May is to offer MPs a veto over the introduction of  the so-called Northern Ireland backstop in a last-ditch attempt to limit the scale of an expected heavy House of Commons defeat for her Brexit deal next week. 

The move came after MPs inflicted a second defeat on the prime minister within 24 hours, this time requiring Mrs May to produce a Brexit “Plan B” within a matter of days if — as expected —  she loses next week’s vote.

Following furious exchanges at Westminster, MPs voted to accelerate the Brexit timetable and limit Mrs May’s ability to run down the clock before March 29, the day Britain is due to leave the EU. 

The Commons voted 308 to 297 in favour of an amendment from the Europhile former attorney-general Dominic Grieve forcing Mrs May to present an alternative Brexit plan within three sitting days — January 21.

The previous day, MPs had  voted to limit the government’s tax-raising powers  in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit. But Eurosceptic Tory MPs were furious that Wednesday’s vote was even allowed by Commons speaker John Bercow, who they view as an opponent of Brexit.

With parliament flexing its muscles over an enfeebled prime minister, and Mr Bercow trying to give MPs more sway over Brexit, Mrs May made a desperate new attempt to win support for her deal.

Downing Street confirmed the government would next week support an amendment by Tory grandees giving MPs control over the introduction of the Irish backstop, which aims to avoid a hard border through a “temporary” UK/EU customs union.

The amendment would require MPs to approve “the commencement of powers implementing the Northern Ireland backstop” or the extension of the transition period, which the EU has agreed could run until December 2022.

It would also require the government to conclude talks on a future trade deal, or find alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border, within one year of the backstop coming into effect.

Although the move appears inflammatory, EU diplomats have indicated they could tolerate the move because it was intended for domestic consumption and would not change Britain’s international treaty obligations.

Mrs May’s allies admitted the move itself would be unlikely to avert a defeat in next week’s vote, but should be seen as part of a wider package. “We continue to be bound by our international obligations,” Downing Street said.

The prime minister’s aides argued that if MPs refused to accept the backstop, it would create an unstable political environment and both sides would have no choice but to explore alternative ways — possibly by using new technology — to maintain a soft border.

The amendment, tabled by former Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire, would also require Mrs May to “obtain further assurances from the EU that the Northern Ireland backstop would only be a temporary arrangement”.

The prime minister is planning to make  a final appeal to the EU  for “political and legal” guarantees that the backstop is temporary after her expected defeat next Tuesday and before a second vote on her revised deal in late January.

MPs in the meantime could try to press Mrs May to consider other Brexit options, but there is no clear consensus for an alternative exit strategy.

Wednesday’s defeat, which took the government by surprise, is the latest example of MPs seeking to take control over Brexit, with less than three months to go before Britain’s scheduled exit from the EU. A total of 17 Tories, including former ministers Jo Johnson and Nicky Morgan, rebelled against their government.

Brexiter MPs furiously accused Mr Bercow of bias and ignoring parliamentary precedent. Peter Bone, a Conservative MP, said he had been told that putting forward an amendment to a parliamentary business motion would be “totally out of order”. 

Conservative Brexiters privately threatened to table a no-confidence motion in the speaker, although he would probably survive thanks to the support of opposition parties.

On the first of five days of debate about Mrs May’s Brexit deal, Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, said an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period “may well be inevitable now”. 

In the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury said a no-deal Brexit would be not only a political and practical failure, but a moral one equally as serious as ignoring the result of the referendum entirely.

“A second referendum is not my preference,” said Justin Welby, “but if Parliament fails in the task entrusted to it, then regrettably it may be required. This is about more than Brexit, and Parliament must not show itself unfit for the job.”

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Organization: Conservative Party UK, House of Lords, House of Commons UK, European Union, Foreign & Commonwealth Office UK
Location: Northern Ireland, UK
People: Justin Welby, Theresa May, Hugo Swire, Nicky Morgan, John Bercow, Dominic Grieve, Henry Mance
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UK politics & policy, Brexit, World, Politics, Brexit