May loses grip on Brexit deal after fresh Commons humiliation

Theresa May

Theresa May’s room for manoeuvre should her Brexit deal be rejected next week was further constrained on Wednesday night, after the government lost a second dramatic parliamentary showdown in as many days.

An increasingly boxed-in prime minister must now set out her plan B within three working days of a defeat next Tuesday, after the rebel amendment passed.

There were furious scenes in the House of Commons as the Speaker, John Bercow, took the controversial decision to allow a vote on the amendment, tabled by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

A string of MPs, including the leader of the house, Andrea Leadsom, repeatedly intervened to question the Speaker’s approach. Some accused him of being biased against Brexit.

But parliament went on to back Grieve as the prime minister was defied by Conservative rebels determined to hand control of the Brexit process to MPs if next week’s vote is lost.

The fresh defeat, which followed a separate backbench amendment to the finance bill on Tuesday, means the government will have to return to parliament swiftly with a plan.

An accelerated timetable will also pile the pressure on Labour to move quickly. The motion setting out the government’s plan can be amended by MPs hoping to push their own alternative proposals, from a second referendum to a harder Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s party will have to decide which to back.

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, on Wednesday became the most senior Labour figure to suggest that the article 50 process might have to be extended, if the deadlock in parliament could not be broken.

He told MPs: “There is a question of the extension of article 50, which may well be inevitable now, given the position that we are in, but of course we can only seek it, because the other 27 [EU members] have to agree.”

Quick guide

Why extend the Brexit transition period?

Will the proposal solve anything?

The mooted extension to the transition period is a new idea being put forward by the EU to help Theresa May square the circle created by the written agreement last December and the draft withdrawal agreement in March.

That committed the UK and the EU to ensuring there was no divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

But it also, after an intervention by the Democratic Unionist party, committed the UK (not the EU) not to have any trading differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The problem is that these are two irreconcilable agreements. They also impinge on the legally binding Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland and in some senses pooled sovereignty of Northern Ireland giving people a birthright to be Irish or British or both.

If the UK leaves the EU along with the customs union and the single market then the border in Ireland becomes the only land border between the UK and the EU forcing customs, tax and regulatory controls.

The backstop is one of three options agreed by the EU and the UK in December and would only come into play if option A (overall agreement) or option B (a tailor-made solution) cannot be agreed by the end of transition. The Irish have likened it to an insurance policy.

The new EU idea is to extend the transition period to allow time to get to option A or B.

But an extension is problematic for Brexiters and leave voters, who want the UK to get out of the EU as soon as possible.

The Irish and the EU will also still need the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, which must be signed before the business of the trade deal…

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