Wednesday 20 February 2019

Pro-EU Tories falter amid fears that revolt could be fatal for May

UK prime minister facing crucial votes this week

British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing growing unease on her party’s backbenches over her handling of Brexit talks. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing growing unease on her party’s backbenches over her handling of Brexit talks. Photo: Reuters

Gavin Cordon

British ministers insist that they are confident of winning a series of key Commons votes on the government's Brexit Bill, despite a threatened revolt by pro-EU Tory MPs.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill is set to return to the House of Commons, with the UK government seeking to overturn a series of House of Lords amendments that are aimed at keeping Britain close to the EU.

Veteran former chancellor of the exchequer Kenneth Clarke urged the Remainer rebels to hold their nerve and said defeat for the government would actually strengthen Theresa May's hand against hardline Brexiteers in the UK cabinet.

However, there are signs that other pro-EU Tories are backing away, amid fears that she could be fatally damaged by a defeat, which could open the way for a Brexiteer to take over as party leader and prime minister.

Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis will return to Brussels today for the latest round of talks with the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Their meeting comes after Mr Barnier rejected key elements of London's latest 'backstop' proposal to avoid the imposition of a hard Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if the UK and the EU are unable to agree a final deal.

However, the UK cabinet office minister David Lidington denied that the talks were heading for meltdown.

He told the BBC's 'Andrew Marr Show': "This is a negotiation. We have put something on the table. Michel Barnier has responded constructively. We now need to get down and talk.

"I am expecting the talks to move forward; I am not expecting a meltdown."

Mrs May's government was thought to be vulnerable this week on two amendments; one on the EU customs union and the other on giving parliament a decisive say over what happens if it rejects a final Brexit deal.

However, housing minister Dominic Raab said he was reasonably confident that the government now had the numbers to see off the revolt.

Mr Clarke said that he expected the conversations among the rebels to continue. He brushed off warnings that defeat could lead to a general election and possibly a Labour government.

"Nobody in the House of Commons wants a general election. Most Labour MPs are as terrified of the idea of a Corbyn government as I am," he told the 'Sunday Politics' programme.

"The Brexiteers are proceeding with Donald Trump-type methods of appearing to agree one moment and then confronting and vetoing any progress."

Labour shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer appeared to acknowledge that the prospects of defeat for the government were slipping away.

He said there would be further opportunities for Conservative MPs who want to keep Britain in the single market and the customs union.

"The idea that this Tuesday or this Wednesday is the last-chance saloon on a single market deal is misconceived," he added.

Irish Independent

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