Monday 22 July 2019

Theresa May standing firm on Brexit red lines

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after attending a church service near her Maidenhead constituency. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after attending a church service near her Maidenhead constituency. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Gavin Cordon

Theresa May is to set out her next steps to build a Commons majority for a Brexit deal amid signs she is still unwilling to give ground on her central demands.

Following the crushing defeat last week of her agreement with Brussels, the UK Prime Minister will make oral and written statements to the House explaining how she intends to proceed.

She will also table a "neutral" motion to be debated and voted on - along with any amendments tabled by MPs - on January 29. Neutral motions are usually unamendable, but in this instance MPs will be able to express an alternative to the Government's plan.

British government sources said she would be holding further talks with MPs, as well as business leaders and trade unionists, throughout the week in an attempt to find a way forward.

But after she briefed the Cabinet in a conference call on Sunday about her first round of cross-party contacts last week, there was little expectation she was ready to offer concessions that could win over opposition MPs.

Instead reports suggested she was preparing to press for changes to the Northern Ireland backstop in the hope she can win round Tory Brexiteers and her allies in the DUP who voted against her original deal.

There have been reports of her trying to amend the Good Friday Agreement - although the paper quoted senior sources as saying the idea was a "non-starter".

Tanaiste Simon Coveney was adamant that the backstop - intended to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic - was an essential part of the Withdrawal Agreement.

However there were signs some Brexiteers could reluctantly back Mrs May's deal amid concerns a cross-party grouping of MPs are plotting to impose a "softer" Brexit - or derail it altogether.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said: "Even Mrs May's deal would be better than not leaving at all."

There was anger among pro-Leave MPs at moves to enable backbenchers to take control of the House of Commons business from the British government - in breach of normal conventions - through a series of amendments to the neutral motion.

One group including senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory former minister Nick Boles is seeking to give time for a bill to suspend the Article 50 withdrawal process if there is no new deal with Brussels by the end of February.

Jeremy Corbyn Picture: PA
Jeremy Corbyn Picture: PA

Ms Cooper told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that she believed the Prime Minister was hoping Parliament would rule out no deal on her behalf.

She said: "I think she (Mrs May) knows that she should rule out no deal in the national interest because it would be so damaging. She's refusing to do so and I think she's hoping that Parliament will do this for her - that is not leadership."

It came as Business Minister Richard Harrington warned that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be an "absolute disaster" as he urged Mrs May to rule out a no-deal Brexit.

"She (Mrs May) should, in my view, say 'We are responsible people, we're going to do our duty to business, and we're going to rule out a no deal because we want a great deal'."

Another more radical amendment drawn up by former attorney general Dominic Grieve would allow a motion by a minority of 300 MPs - from at least five parties and including 10 Tories - to be debated as the first item of Commons business the next day.

He denied claims he was seeking to prevent Britain leaving the EU after International Trade Secretary Liam Fox accused pro-Remain MPs of trying to "hijack" the 2016 referendum vote.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hit out at the Prime Minister for stymieing attempts to find a cross-party consensus through her refusal to rule out a no-deal Brexit.

"May's no-deal threat is empty and hugely expensive, wasting billions of pounds we should be spending on vital public services," he said.

"It's a pointless and damaging attempt to appease a faction in her own party when she now needs to reach out to overcome this crisis."

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