Labour de­feat hands boost to hard Brexit can­di­dates

At­tempt to box in new PM fails on day John­son launches his cam­paign

The Guardian - - Front page - Jes­sica El­got Chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent

Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship can­di­dates, in­clud­ing Boris John­son – who are hop­ing to force a “deal or no deal” Brexit in Oc­to­ber – were handed a boost yes­ter­day when MPs de­feated a Labour-led at­tempt to tie the next prime min­is­ter’s hands.

Labour vowed it would not end ef­forts to stop no deal but the de­feat bol­stered John­son’s claim at his lead­er­ship launch that MPs would not be pre­pared to “reap the whirl­wind” of halt­ing Brexit en­tirely.

Tory MPs cheered as the mo­tion was de­feated by a ma­jor­ity of 11, af­ter which the Labour leader, Jeremy Cor­byn, was heard to say: “You won’t be cheer­ing in Septem­ber.”

The for­mer Con­ser­va­tive MP Nick Boles warned that op­po­nents of a nodeal de­par­ture were fast run­ning out of op­tions – apart from a con­fi­dence vote – to bring down the gov­ern­ment. “No-deal Brexit on 31 Oc­to­ber is back to be­ing a rac­ing cer­tainty,” he said.

“It is very hard to see where any fur­ther leg­isla­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties will come from. So it’s now a ques­tion of pol­i­tics – specif­i­cally whether a PM pur­su­ing a no-deal Brexit can com­mand and sus­tain the con­fi­dence of the House of Com­mons.”

John­son of­fi­cially launched his cam­paign yes­ter­day and Tory MPs will take part in a first round of votes to choose the next prime min­is­ter to­day.

The for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary said he be­lieved a new gov­ern­ment “with a new man­date, a new op­ti­mism, a new de­ter­mi­na­tion” could leave the EU with an amended deal by 31 Oc­to­ber.

How­ever, the lead­er­ship fron­trun­ner warned that he was de­ter­mined to leave the EU by 31 Oc­to­ber, whether he had achieved a new deal or not. “I am not aim­ing for a no-deal out­come. But it is only re­spon­si­ble to pre­pare vig­or­ously and se­ri­ously,” he said.

John­son re­fused to say what he would do if he had not se­cured an im­proved deal in time for 31 Oc­to­ber – or whether he would re­sign if the dead­line were not met or no deal were pre­vented.

Speak­ing af­ter the de­feat in the Com­mons, the shadow Brexit sec­re­tary, Keir Starmer, said the party would con­tin­ues its cross-party ef­forts to stop no deal. “Labour stands ready to use what­ever mech­a­nism it can to pro­tect jobs, the econ­omy and com­mu­ni­ties from the dis­as­trous con­se­quences of a no-deal Brexit,” he said. “Any Tory lead­er­ship can­di­date should know that par­lia­ment will con­tinue to fight against no deal.”

One shadow min­is­ter said op­po­nents of a

‘Any Tory lead­er­ship can­di­date should know par­lia­ment will con­tinue to fight against no deal’ Keir Starmer Shadow Brexit sec­re­tary

no-deal Brexit had missed a cru­cial op­por­tu­nity and said they be­lieved they had been scup­pered by the tim­ing. “This isn’t the end of it. We’ll just have to be dou­bly cre­ative,” they said. “The tim­ing in the midst of [the] Tory lead­er­ship [con­test] is poor, but not our choice.”

Eight Labour MPs, in­clud­ing Caro­line Flint, John Mann and Gra­ham Stringer voted with the gov­ern­ment against the mo­tion and 13 more ab­stained. Ten Con­ser­va­tive MPs voted with Labour.

The de­bate be­fore the vote re­vealed fray­ing tem­pers in all wings of both par­ties. The Labour MP Gareth Snell, who rep­re­sents the leave-vot­ing seat of Stoke-on-Trent Cen­tral, said he re­gret­ted not vot­ing for Theresa May’s Brexit agree­ment. He said he would ab­stain be­cause he could not coun­te­nance par­lia­men­tary ma­noeu­vres that would lead to a fur­ther de­lay.

“We will have been re­spon­si­ble for a no-deal Brexit by de­fault be­cause of our in­abil­ity to make a de­ci­sion,” Snell said.

The for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Do­minic Grieve said he was pre­pared to re­sign the Tory whip and go against the gov­ern­ment in a no-con­fi­dence vote if it would pre­vent a no-deal Brexit. “I sim­ply have to say, here and now, I will not hes­i­tate to do that if that is what is at­tempted,” he said.

The mo­tion pro­posed giv­ing MPs con­trol of the par­lia­men­tary agenda in a fort­night’s time. That day could then have been used to be­gin leg­is­la­tion to pre­vent the UK leav­ing the EU with­out a deal, though it is un­cer­tain what form this would take.

Speak­ing in the de­bate, Starmer said MPs had been forced to act be­cause of sugges­tions from lead­er­ship can­di­dates, in­clud­ing John­son and Do­minic Raab that the UK would leave – come what may – on 31 Oc­to­ber. Raab had even sug­gested he would be pre­pared to pro­rogue par­lia­ment to stop MPs’ ef­forts to pre­vent a no-deal Brexit.

“It will in­tro­duce a safety valve in the Brexit process and it will be a re­minder to all Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship can­di­dates that this house will take every step nec­es­sary to pre­vent a no deal,” Starmer said.

The mo­tion, which Labour tabled dur­ing an op­po­si­tion day de­bate, was signed by the for­mer Con­ser­va­tive min­is­ter Oliver Letwin and the lead­ers of the Scot­tish Na­tional party, Plaid Cymru, the Lib­eral Democrats and the Green party.

The Brexit sec­re­tary, Steve Bar­clay, said it was a “blind mo­tion” that gave no in­di­ca­tion as to what path MPs would try to pur­sue to block a no-deal de­par­ture, and would have “vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited scope”.

Tory MPs who said they in­tended to back the plan in­cluded An­toinette Sand­bach, Do­minic Grieve, Sam Gy­imah and Jonathan Djano­gly, plus Boles, who had flown back to the UK specif­i­cally to vote on the mo­tion.

MPs work­ing across par­ties be­lieved it was es­sen­tial to take the op­por­tu­nity to be­gin ef­forts to stop a no-deal Brexit be­fore the next prime min­is­ter was in­stalled and prior to the start of the sum­mer re­cess. There are

no fur­ther op­po­si­tion day de­bates sched­uled. Lead­er­ship can­di­dates who have op­posed no deal, in­clud­ing Matt Han­cock and Rory Ste­wart, had ear­lier made it clear they would not back the mo­tion.

But Han­cock told the Guardian: “It’s no good just hav­ing a Brexit po­si­tion that is built on either re­run­ning the old plan, which failed; or threat­en­ing no deal, when par­lia­ment has voted in the past al­ready to block no deal. No deal isn’t a pol­icy choice that is avail­able to the next prime min­is­ter.”

Ear­lier, the chan­cel­lor, Philip Ham­mond, said John­son’s Brexit plan was im­pos­si­ble as the UK would not be able to leave the EU with a deal or with­out a deal by the end of Oc­to­ber.

Ham­mond cast doubt on the vi­a­bil­ity of the Brexit prom­ises of John­son and other Tory leader con­tenders, such as Do­minic Raab, as he gave a speech in West­min­ster.

He said many of the can­di­dates were pledg­ing things they could not de­liver dur­ing their cam­paigns which they may have to go back on later. Asked whether John­son’s plan to leave on 31 Oc­to­ber would work, he said: “I don’t think so … I think it’s not sen­si­ble for can­di­dates to box them­selves into a cor­ner on this. Par­lia­ment will not al­low a no-deal exit from the EU and our ex­pe­ri­ence has sug­gested it may not be that easy to se­cure a deal in par­lia­ment.”

The idea of leav­ing with a deal by that date would be “very dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble”, he said.

An­other can­di­date, Jeremy Hunt, was also asked about Ham­mond’s com­ments and said: “This is a time for skilled ne­go­ti­a­tion and not empty threats. I’ve al­ways wanted to keep no deal on the ta­ble as one of our ne­go­ti­at­ing levers but we can’t be blind to the fact that there is a strong ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment against no deal and it’s likely that par­lia­ment would find a way to block no deal.

“That’s why we need to find a way through this that gets us a deal. And if we want Brexit we need to choose a prime min­is­ter who can get us a deal.” clear in the course of the de­bate that he would be pre­pared to vote against the Con­ser­va­tives in a no­con­fi­dence mo­tion if a fu­ture prime min­is­ter tried to take Bri­tain out of the EU with­out a deal.

“If we get to a point where a prime min­is­ter is in­tent on do­ing this, the only way of stop­ping that prime min­is­ter would be to bring down that prime min­is­ter’s gov­ern­ment,” he said. “And I sim­ply have to say here and now I will not hes­i­tate to do that if that is what is at­tempted, even if it means my re­sign­ing the whip and leav­ing the party.”

The chan­cel­lor, Philip Ham­mond, has hinted he might also be pre­pared to do the same thing.

With the Con­ser­va­tives’ ma­jor­ity wafer-thin, those two would not need to be joined by many oth­ers to bring down the gov­ern­ment.

Un­der the Fixed-term Par­lia­ments Act, if a gov­ern­ment loses a no-con­fi­dence vote, al­ter­na­tive lead­ers have a fort­night to try to as­sem­ble a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity – and if they are un­able to do so, a gen­eral elec­tion must be called. Whether that would re­solve the Brexit im­passe, it is im­pos­si­ble to say.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LEON NEAL/GETTY

John­son at the launch of his party lead­er­ship cam­paign. He said he thought a Brexit deal was still pos­si­ble

PHO­TOGRAPHS: GETTY, UNS, MARK DUFFY/UK PAR­LIA­MENT

▼ Scenes in par­lia­ment yes­ter­day: the gov­ern­ment de­feated Labour’s Brexit mo­tion by 11 votes

Grieve: ready to re­sign the whip if no deal looms

▲ Philip Ham­mond cast doubt on the vi­a­bil­ity of con­tenders’ Brexit pledges

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