Parliament today delivered a landmark blow to Theresa May’s threats of a no-deal Brexit as a dozen Conservative MPs joined a cross-party revolt.
Nine former ministers were among the group who defied Tory whips by backing a cross-party amendment to the flagship Finance Bill.
It sent a powerful warning to Downing Street that Parliament is ready and able to seize control rather than let Britain crash out of the European Union without an agreement, putting jobs and security at risk.
It came on a day that:
- Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the Government intends to leave the EU on March 29 as scheduled, but failed to fully deny reports that officials have discussed possibly postponing the date of departure. French Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau said: “It has not been asked by the British authorities.” But Ireland said it would not object to a delay.
- Irish premier Leo Varadkar publicly confirmed that Mrs May would get “assurances” that the EU does not “want” to tie the UK into a controversial backstop permanently. But his offer was promptly rejected by former Brexit Secretary David Davis for falling short of a binding promise.
- Extra police were deployed outside Parliament after widespread anger at the abuse hurled at Remain-backing Tory MP Anna Soubry. Several police vans were parked outside College Green, pairs of police officers stationed at either end.
The 12 Tory rebels backing the amendment are enough to overturn Mrs May’s working majority of 12, even if her Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party allies vote with her.
They were headed by former Tory education secretary Nicky Morgan, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, plus ex-ministers Sir Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve, Sir Nicholas Soames, Guto Bebb, Phillip Lee, Ed Vaizey and Jonathan Djanogly, plus Mrs May’s former policy adviser George Freeman, Health Committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston and backbencher Heidi Allen. Mrs Morgan told the Evening Standard the vote was a game-changer. “Parliament has been denied a say on the way forward for too long,” she said. “It’s now time for Parliament to assert itself and make clear that a no-deal outcome will be stopped by MPs right across the House of Commons.”
The actual amendment, if passed, would ban the Treasury from using tax-changing powers to enable a no-deal exit on March 29 unless this was first approved by a vote of MPs. If the amendment is selected for a vote, Mrs May would face a choice between risking defeat in the House, or accepting the amendment. No 10 sources have reportedly indicated they could “live with” the amendment.
Mr Barclay today insisted that the Government was still fully committed to leaving the EU on March 29, and hoped to win next Tuesday’s Commons vote on Mrs May’s much criticised withdrawal agreement.
He said extending Article 50 would “generate some very practical issues” but on BBC’s Today programme he refused to deny that officials had discussed the idea with EU counterparts. Digital Minister Margot James has publicly suggested that Brexit could be delayed. Mr Barclay said: “It’s not a unilateral decision for the UK ... It would also generate some very practical issues, for example EU parliamentary elections at the end of May.”
Mr Varadkar’s intervention, reported in the Irish Times, raised hopes at No 10 that the Irish leader is willing to offer comfort to Tory MPs worried that the border backstop deal could require Britain to obey EU rules indefinitely.
DUP MPs also oppose the backstop, which would see Northern Ireland remain aligned to some rules of the EU single market if another solution is not found before the end of the transition period in December 2020
“We don’t want to trap the UK into anything — we want to get on to the talks about the future relationship right away,” Mr Varadkar said during a trip to Mali in Africa.
“I think it’s those kind of assurances we are happy to give.”
His words suggested Ireland was ready to support an exchange of letters confirming that the EU does not intend to make the backstop permanent. But they fell short of Mrs May’s request for an effective deadline of 2021 to put a new trade deal in place.
Brexiteer Mr Davis instantly rejected it, urging Mr May to “hold fast”. He told Today: “If we hold fast to our line, then they will actually come back and renegotiate.”
German foreign minister Heiko Maas, speaking in Dublin, said: “Avoiding a hard border is a fundamental concern.” Tory MPs who attended the first of two peacemaking drinks receptions at No 10 last night reported a “warm” atmosphere but no sign of a breakthrough.
Brexiteer Theresa Villiers said the evening “hasn’t changed my view” and that she would still not be supporting the agreement.
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney has warned the British Government that time for “wishful thinking” is over if it wants to avoid crashing out of the EU. “There is no alternative 585-page agreement waiting to be dusted off,” he said.
France’s European affairs minister Ms Loiseau said: “No one wants to trap the United Kingdom inside the backstop. But, I also need to reassure my fellow citizens because there are many scenarios which are possible including a no-deal. And we will be ready for all the scenarios.”