Labour’s challenge exposes May woes over EU
Tory rebels ready to join rebellion over fixed date
THE EXTENT of the challenge facing Theresa May in her efforts to pass the next crucial piece of Brexit legislation was yesterday laid bare after Labour confirmed it would oppose the Government’s attempts to fix the exact date of Britain’s exit in law.
The announcement by the Shadow Brexit Minister Paul Blomfield came amid reports that up to 20 Tory MPs were preparing to rebel on the amendment, warning that it could “tie our hands” in negotiations.
Speaking during last night’s marathon debate in the Commons, the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve became one of the first backbenchers to confirm that he would not vote in favour of the motion, dismissing it as “mad”.
His act of defiance coincided with a warning from Parliament’s spending watchdog that Brexit could prove “catastrophic” for British businesses unless the right customs systems were put in place.
MPs have tabled almost 400 amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, with eight days set aside for debate between now and Christmas.
One of the most significant proposals is a Tory motion calling for a Parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal which has gained substantial cross-party support.
The Government looks to have seen off a potential rebellion by announcing that it would bring forward a separate Bill to implement the withdrawal agreement – thereby guaranteeing MPs a vote.
However, Ministers are now facing a new challenge over their own amendment which aims to enshrine March 29, 2019 as the official date of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Justifying the move yesterday, Brexit Minister Steve Baker suggested it was designed to reassure MPs about the scope of socalled Henry VIII powers in the Bill. He stressed that the Government also wanted to “provide certainty” for Eurosceptic MPs that there would be no attempts to delay the Brexit process.
But setting out Labour’s position, Mr Blomfield claimed that fixing the date was unnecessary and could threaten the chances of a smooth transition.
In a separate statement, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer urged Theresa May to withdraw the amendment and “stop pandering to the ‘no-deal’ enthusiasts in her own party”.
According to reports, about 20 MPs have indicated they are willing to rebel if the Government motion is put to a vote. Mr Grieve last night confirmed he would not support the amendment as it would “fetter the Government’s own ability to carry out the negotiation”. He was joined in his criticism by the fiercely pro-Remain MP Ken Clarke, who described the inclusion of the date as “positively harmful to the national interest”. But senior backbencher Bernard Jenkin accused opponents of the motion of not having accepted the reality that “we’re leaving the European Union”.
THERESA MAY will today unveil a series of measures designed to put the UK centre stage in the tech and digital industries as the Government seeks to bolster the economy ahead of leaving the European Union.
The announcement, which includes a doubling of the number of visas available to attract the “brightest and best talent” from oversees, comes as the Prime Minister prepares to meet leading figures from the sector in Downing Street.
In a counter to recent gloomy forecasts about the potential impact of Brexit, Mrs May will insist that the Government is doing all it can “to secure a strong future for our thriving tech sector” and to send a clear signal that Britain “will remain open for business”.
Ministers will also set out details of a new £2m voucher scheme today to make funding available for businesses in West Yorkshire who want to access hyperfast broadband schemes.
According to recent estimates, the digital industry contributes about £97bn to the UK economy a year, with British tech firms attracting the biggest investment of any European country. These companies are at the forefront of developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, 5G internet access and “smart energy”.
Today’s measures include doubling the number of tier one visas – from 1,000 to 2,000 – that are available to workers who demonstrate “exceptional talent” in of engineering, medicine, digital technology and the arts.
The Government will also announce £21m of extra funding to expand its Tech City UK programme, which was set up to “accelerate the growth of the digital tech sector across the country”.
In order to further “reaffirm the Government’s commitment to this vital industry”, Mrs May will host a number of digital entrepreneurs and innovators at Number 10. Attendees will include Ali Parsa, the founder of Babylon which recently launched its medical consultation app, Tom Walkinshaw of Alba Orbital, and the CEO of Techmums Dr Sue Black.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Mrs May said the UK’s digital tech sector “is supporting talent, boosting productivity, and creating hundreds of thousands of good, high-skilled jobs up and down the country”.
“As we prepare to leave the European Union, I am clear that Britain will remain open for business. That means Government doing all it can to secure a strong future for our thriving tech sector and ensure people in all corners of our nation share in the benefits of its success,” she added.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is also launching a broadband voucher scheme to allow businesses in four pilot areas – including West Yorkshire – to apply for up to £3,000 to cover the cost of installing gigabit-speed internet.
It marks the next stage of a £10m project announced in September to encourage the uptake of “innovative” ways of connecting offices and public-sector buildings with the next generation of broadband.
The Government has already set itself the target of ensuring 95 per cent of the UK’s properties have access to superfast broadband speeds (24 megabits per second) by the end of this year. Gigabit services are not yet widely available, but are capable of achieving “hyperfast” connections of 1,000 megabits or higher.