Monday 16 September 2019

David Hughes: 'Focus turns to Westminster vote as Brexiters keep poking May'

Boris Johnson and DUP add to Theresa May's woes as British PM attempts to seal her deal, writes David Hughes

ANY PORT IN A STORM: Boris Johnson at the DUP annual conference in Belfast yesterday. Photo: Paul Faith
ANY PORT IN A STORM: Boris Johnson at the DUP annual conference in Belfast yesterday. Photo: Paul Faith

David Hughes

The rejection of Theresa May's Brexit deal will lead to "economic chaos" in Britain, warned UK chancellor Philip Hammond as the British PM travelled to Brussels yesterday for talks.

May will meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk before a summit of EU leaders later today which is expected to endorse the deal thrashed out between negotiators from the two sides.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had threatened to boycott the European Council meeting without further guarantees for Madrid over the status of Gibraltar.

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But a crisis was averted after a clarification about the position and emergency talks between Mr Sanchez, Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker.

A letter from the UK's ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, confirmed the Withdrawal Agreement imposes no obligations regarding the "territorial scope" of future agreements. It also makes clear the UK will negotiate future agreements on behalf of all territories for whose external relations it is responsible - including Gibraltar.

A UK government spokesman said: "For the withdrawal negotiations, given there are some circumstances which are specific to Gibraltar, we held talks with Spain which directly involved the government of Gibraltar.

"These were constructive and we look forward to taking the same approach to the future relationship."

Mr Sanchez said "this is going to allow us to have direct negotiations with the UK regarding Gibraltar".

Mr Tusk said: "I will recommend that we approve on Sunday the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. No one has reasons to be happy. But at least at this critical time, the EU27 has passed the test of unity and solidarity."

After his conversation with Mr Sanchez, Mr Juncker said: "Solidarity, determination and dialogue are the European way of finding solutions."

But Mrs May also faced domestic difficulties as the DUP held its conference in Belfast - with Boris Johnson making a guest appearance.

Mr Hammond sought to reassure the DUP over its "understandable concerns" about the Northern Ireland backstop provisions aimed at preventing a hard border on the island.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Hammond said he believed the deal on offer is better for the UK than remaining in the EU, stressing it will help heal the divisions caused by Brexit.

"It's a way of leaving the EU with minimum negative impact on our economy," he said.

"Economics is not the only consideration - we also have to look at the political healing process, bringing our country back together because countries that are disunited and divided are not successful countries. If we want this country to be successful in the future, we have got to bring it back together after this process."

He warned a no-deal Brexit would unleash "economic chaos", adding: "If the meaningful vote is lost we are in uncharted territory.

"We will be faced with potential economic chaos. I am sure we would get a very negative reaction from the business community, from investors, from the markets."

He added "we might end up with no deal, we might end up with no Brexit" if the Withdrawal Agreement is blocked by Parliament.

If the deal does pass the Commons, the repercussions could bring down Mrs May's government, with the DUP hinting at withdrawing the support of its MPs.

The DUP's 10 MPs have proved reluctant to vote with the Tory government since the terms of the Brexit deal became known - and the termination of their Westminster arrangement would be a major blow to Theresa May.

Already 91 Tory MPs have indicated that they will oppose May's deal when it reaches the House of Commons in December.

DUP leader Arlene Foster told the London Times that she thought Mrs May's deal would be a worse outcome than a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

"It is, and the reason I say that is on day one of us leaving the European Union there would be no difference, we would be exactly the same as the rest of the UK, but in year five or ten we would be different," she said. "If people are looking to Dublin for representation in Europe because we're the subject of EU rules, that is so dangerous in terms of the union."

DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds used his speech to the party conference to urge May to ditch her Brexit plan.

"The message from this conference, from every section of this party is: bin the backstop," he said.

Boris Johnson, viewed as a potential leadership rival to Mrs May, was given a rousing reception at the conference. He said the UK was on the verge of "making a historic mistake", adding: "Unless we junk this backstop, we will find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us - a satellite state."

Johnson called for a commitment in the Withdrawal Agreement for a "super Canada" trade deal, a provision to withhold "at least half" the agreed £39bn divorce bill until trade talks are concluded and a dedicated Cabinet minister for no-deal planning. He also called for an actual bridge to be built between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Meanwhile, Tory-leaning newspapers are reporting that the next stage of May's Brexit sales pitch will centre on the immigration concerns which were a key factor in the Leave vote. According to leaked cabinet papers, the UK Home Office has drawn up plans to issue low-skilled migrants with 11-month visas "with restricted entitlements and rights" while they are living in the UK. The Tories are apparently planning to set out their plan in the week beginning December 3 - a week before the crunch Brexit vote in Westminster.

©Press Association

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