PM may be set for turning on vote
British Prime Minister Theresa May is said to “be in listening mode’’ including possibly deferring Tuesday’s key vote on her Brexit withdrawal bill, as her executive scrambles to find a way to avoid a loss bill that could bring down the government.
The EU has been considering whether to offer an extension to the Treaty of Rome’s Article 50 and move the March 29 Brexit deadline, but this has so far been rejected by Mrs May.
“She has been very clear we are not extending Article 50,” Downing Street said yesterday.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which gives Mrs May’s Conservative party control of the House of Commons, was horrified at discovering the true extent of the backstop implications for Northern Ireland, following the publication of the cabinet Brexit advice from AttorneyGeneral Geoffrey Cox.
The full advice from Mr Cox that the government was forced to table on Wednesday after being found in contempt of parliament the previous day said the country would be tied “indefinitely in the backstop and would endure indefinitely until a succeeded agreement took place’’.
The planned deal would impose Customs regulations between Northern Ireland and Britain and leave Northern Ireland exposed to being tied to the EU if the rest of Britain diverged away.
DUP leaders said they would vote against the Brexit bill, but would restore the government’s numbers to govern if parliament rejected the deal. The clear implication is that if Mrs May improbably gets her bill passed the DUP will side with Labour and successfully effect a no-confidence motion and eventually force a general election. The DUP’s hostility to the Brexit deal has forced a rethink at the highest levels of the Tory party.
At least three cabinet members and chief Tory whip Julian Smith have been pushing for a delay in the vote to allow time to convince Tory rebels to swing behind Mrs May so that the extent of her defeat is somewhat palatable. If she loses by anything less than 30 it will embolden her to go to Brussels and try to renegotiate some tweaks to the deal. A loss by more than 100 would bring on a leadership challenge.
But Mrs May’s sweeteners to her colleagues, including offering them seats on a committee to negotiate the trade deal with the EU, have had no impact. There is so little confidence Britain and the EU will have negotiated a trade deal in time to avoid the backstop that the issues of sovereignty have calcified views.
Another plan ensuring parliament has a say on whether to enter the backstop is seen as a fudge. And so far the EU leaders have shown no willingness to adjust the deal. The EU may consider it a better option to sit back and allow the British parliament to push for a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox warned that politicians could stop Brexit if the deal didn’t pass.
“(There is) a real danger that the House of Commons, which has a natural Remain majority, may attempt to steal Brexit from the British people. Which I think would be a democratic affront,” Dr Fox told the Commons.
The Scottish Nationalist Party leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, told parliament that Mrs May had concealed facts and inadvertently misled the House of Commons in regards to the Irish backstop.
Mrs May responded: “We have not concealed the facts from this house … we have very clearly set out the legal position.”
But DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the release of the Attorney-General’s advice was “devastating’’. “The events of recent days have exposed the government,’’ he said.
Tory MP Zac Goldsmith said if Mrs May won’t renegotiate with the EU, then another prime minister should do it. He also has warned of a rise in extremist politics if the parliament failed to honour the referendum result.
“Failure to honour the referendum would surely cause an irreparable breakdown in the relationship between people and the authorities,’’ he said.
“It would usher in a new era of extreme politics.”