Friday 24 May 2019

'It is not renegotiable' - Theresa May under fire as she bids to drop the Brexit backstop

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a debate on her Brexit 'plan B' in London
UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/Handout via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a debate on her Brexit 'plan B' in London UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/Handout via REUTERS
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street, London, for the House of Commons ahead of a crucial debate on Brexit. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Newsdesk Newsdesk

Theresa May says the Brexit backstop must be changed as MPs prepare to vote on an amendment that seeks an "alternative arrangement".

The latest move by the embattled British Prime Minister puts her on a collision course with Dublin and Brussels who insist that there will be no reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has selected seven amendments for consideration this evening as MPs aim to shape the next phase of the Brexit talks with the EU.

The amendments selected, and being voted on tonight, include Amendment N - senior Tory Sir Graham Brady's proposal to replace the controversial Irish backstop with "alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border".

But in a blow to Mrs May's hopes of seeking a revised deal from Brussels, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that the Withdrawal Agreement secured in November is "not renegotiable".

Speaking at the Southern EU Countries Summit in Cyprus just moments before MPs were due to vote, Mr Macron said: "As the European Council in December clearly indicated, the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the UK and EU is the best agreement possible.

"It is not renegotiable.

"After the vote which is taking place now in the House of Commons in London, I hope that the British Government will rapidly present to our negotiator Michel Barnier the next steps which will allow the avoidance of a withdrawal without a deal, which no-one wants, but which we must all - despite everything - prepare for."

Meanwhile Mrs May has appealed for MPs to "send an emphatic message" about the Brexit deal they wanted.

She told colleagues she would seek to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement in order to secure legally binding changes with the EU.

She said: "The fundamental concern is that what is supposed to be a temporary arrangement could in fact become permanent and the message has been unequivocal - that this House wants changes to the backstop before it will back a deal."

This was why MPs should back the Brady amendment, she said, adding: "This amendment will give the mandate I need to negotiate with Brussels, an arrangement that commands a majority in this House.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street, as she faces a vote on her Brexit 'plan B', in London, Britain, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street, as she faces a vote on her Brexit 'plan B', in London, Britain, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

"One that ensures we leave with a deal and and addresses the House's concerns while guaranteeing no return to the hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"What I'm talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the Withdrawal Agreement.

"Negotiating such a change will not be easy - it will involve re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement - a move for which I know there is limited appetite among our European partners.

"But I believe that with a mandate from this House and supported by the Attorney General, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the EU."

Meanwhile, MPs have already defeated several of the amendments in the House of Commons so far this evening.

These included a Labour proposal aimed to allow MPs to vote on options to stop a no-deal exit, including a customs union and the possibility of a second referendum.

MPs also defeated the SNP proposal which sought to extend the Article 50 process, rule out a no-deal Brexit and prevent Scots being taken out of the EU "against their will".

MPs also defeated a move by Labour former minister Yvette Cooper to give Parliament control over the Brexit process if Theresa May fails to secure a deal by February 26.


Mrs May said she accepted her earlier Brexit plan had been defeated in the House of Commons: "The vote was decisive and I listened, so the world knows what this House does not want.

"Today we need to send an emphatic message about what we do want.

"I believe that must include honouring the votes of our fellow citizens and completing the democratic process that began when this House voted overwhelmingly to hold the referendum, then voted to trigger Article 50, and which saw the vast majority of us elected on manifestos pledging to see Brexit through."

Sir Graham, whose amendment has been backed by the Government, said he tabled it because after he saw Mrs May's Chequers deal was losing support it became "very obvious that it was going to be necessary to compromise", but said the backstop was a "compromise too far".

The deputy chairman of the European Research Group of eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, Steve Baker, said the group had agreed to support the Brady amendment.

"A vote for the Brady amendment is a vote to see if the PM can land a deal that will work. If not, then we are not committed."

Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said: "We will be broadly supporting the Government on the Brady amendment because the Prime Minister in her speech earlier on made three clear commitments.

"One, that the Withdrawal Agreement would be reopened. Secondly that there would be a second meaningful vote - so this is not taken as approval of the Withdrawal Agreement come what may.

"The third point is that the Prime Minister gave an indication that the Malthouse compromise is going to be the position the government is looking seriously at adopting.

"And a fourth point: they have accepted a very important indication from Bill Cash that the final act must make it clear that the 1972 European Communities Act ends at the end of the implementation period."

Earlier Philip Hammond claimed all UK regions will be "better off" under every Brexit scenario as he urged MPs to back the Government's deal.

The Chancellor took exception to criticism from Labour's Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North), who said Government analysis shows "every region and every nation of the country will be poorer under any form of Brexit".

Speaking at Treasury questions, Mr Hammond replied: "Your statistics are wrong - it's not right to say that every region will be worse off.

"Every region under every scenario will be better off. The UK economy will continue growing.

"But there is no doubt, as the published cross-government analysis shows, that leaving with a deal will best protect the UK economy and will be in the interests of all our constituents.

"And I'd urge you to get behind the deal."

On a 'no deal', Mr Hammond said: "We are absolutely determined to avoid no deal but the way you avoid no deal is to deliver a deal. As the Prime Minister has said from this despatch box many times, the choices are stark.

"It's do the deal or face no deal or face no Brexit. No Brexit would be a betrayal of the democratic decision of the British people. No deal would be a betrayal of our economic future. The deal is the only way forward that protects our democracy and our economy."

His comments came as shadow chancellor John McDonnell called on Mr Hammond to "stand up to the Prime Minister to insist she rules out a no deal".


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