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Brexit talks take positive turn towards possible compromise

Cross-party talks on Brexit between the government and Labour have moved on to the “nuts and bolts” of a possible compromise, Labour’s Sue Hayman has said, with sources on both sides suggesting discussions were taking a more positive tone. Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, said it was “a really constructive discussion” that had been “getting much more into the nuts and bolts of the detail.” She said she now believed the government was “open to moving forward in our direction”. The government has all but abandoned plans to try to force through the Brexit deal using the withdrawal agreement bill and will instead try to devise a way to forge a compromise through new indicative votes if talks with Labour break down. Government sources had previously suggested that, if the talks ultimately ended in impasse, May could use the withdrawal agreement bill to ratify the Brexit agreement and legislate for guarantees on the environment and workers’ rights. However, it is understood the government now believes it is unlikely to reach an agreement with Labour that would enable it to bring the bill to parliament without risking it being voted down at second reading. Downing Street hopes it could get Labour support for a new process of indicative votes, meaning a guaranteed majority for whatever came out the other end, but that support is also not assured. Lidington has previously hinted that a new process for determining what could command a majority in parliament was now needed, rather than a process that produced no support for any option. The meeting in the Cabinet Office was held with their Labour counterparts, including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary. The prime minister’s spokesman said the government wanted to get the EU withdrawal agreement bill through parliament first. “That is part of the current Queen’s speech cycle and we need to finish that work.” Bringing the speech forward could give MPs the opportunity to show there is no confidence in the government by voting it down, especially if parliament voted against the EU withdrawal bill and the Queen’s speech was used to introduce it again.

Labour says Theresa May unwilling to offer key Brexit concessions

Brexit talks resumed on Tuesday between a team of ministers and shadow ministers. Rachel Johnson and Gavin Esler to stand for Change UK Read more Downing Street continues to insist that it hopes to secure parliamentary ratification of a Brexit deal in time to avoid the UK having to participate in next month’s European parliament elections. The government has been considering tabling the WAB as a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock, but Labour has rejected the idea. After the talks, which involved the cabinet ministers David Lidington and Steve Barclay and their Labour shadows, Jeremy Corbyn blamed the government’s refusal to compromise on central issues such as membership of a customs union for the failure to make significant progress. The executive of the 1922 Committee met on Tuesday night to discuss amending Tory party rules, which currently state a leader cannot face a second no-confidence motion within a year of the previous one. Without Labour support, the government is unlikely to risk bringing back the WAB, which parliament must pass in order to ratify May’s Brexit deal. May’s deal was rejected for a third time last month, by a majority of 58. If the WAB is rejected at its second reading – MPs’ second opportunity to vote on it – the government could not bring it back in the current parliamentary session. One government source suggested May appeared to be paving the way for reluctantly accepting a customs union at the cabinet meeting on Tuesday. But in order to be amended a bill must pass its second reading and Labour sources suggested the party would only be willing to offer its support if May first agreed to compromise.

Theresa May could put off Queen’s speech amid Brexit turmoil

Theresa May could put off the Queen’s speech until later this year, with government sources saying there were no immediate plans to bring one forward while parliament had not yet approved a Brexit deal. May had been widely expected to schedule a Queen’s speech setting out the government’s legislative agenda within weeks, because she announced a two-year parliamentary session in mid-June 2017. “There’s no obligation to have one at a fixed point and there’s no immediate plans to bring forward a Queen’s speech,” the source said. There is usually one Queen’s speech each year, and it has taken place in May or June in recent years, but Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, announced a two-year session after the last election in order to “build the broadest possible consensus for our Brexit plans”. Bringing one forward could give MPs the opportunity to show there is no confidence in the government by voting it down, especially if parliament voted against the EU withdrawal bill and the Queen’s speech was used to introduce it again. May only has a majority with the backing of the DUP, but relations are weak following the party’s refusal to back her withdrawal bill. One concern in No 10 is that if its EU withdrawal bill was voted down, it would have to prorogue parliament and have a Queen’s speech in order to bring it back again. Other factors include the government having all but run out of legislation for parliament to debate other than bills connected to Brexit, and the likelihood of a furious reaction from MPs, including those in the DUP. “There’s no point in a parliamentary session if we’ve not got anything to do. I never knew the real meaning of the word doldrums until this parliament,” he said.

France, Spain and Belgium ‘ready for no-deal Brexit next week’

The diplomatic cable reveals that the French ambassador secured the support of Spanish and Belgian colleagues in arguing that there should only be, at most, a short article 50 extension to avoid an instant financial crisis, saying: “We could probably extend for a couple of weeks to prepare ourselves in the markets.” The chances of Theresa May’s proposal of an extension to 30 June succeeding appeared slim as France’s position in the private diplomatic meeting was echoed by an official statement reiterating its opposition to any further Brexit delay without a clear British plan. Tusk is pushing the EU to offer at a summit next Wednesday what he has described as a “flextension” in which the UK would be given a year-long extension with an option to come out early if the deal is ratified. Responding to May’s letter publicly, France’s secretary of state for European affairs, Amélie de Montchalin, told the Guardian in a statement: “The European council took a clear decision on 21 March … Another extension requires the UK to put forward a plan with clear and credible political backing.” The council would then define the necessary conditions attached to that extension, she said. “[I]n the absence of such a plan, we would have to acknowledge that the UK chose to leave the EU in a disorderly manner.” According to the diplomatic cable of the EU27 meeting, the French ambassador said he “failed to see in Theresa May’s letter any argument in favour of a long extension”. “Some member states insisted on the need to have a clear UK plan before granting a long extension,” the source added. “There are positive elements to the letter,” the ambassador added. France, with the agreement of the Belgian and Spanish ambassadors, agreed that the current position coming from London did not meet these conditions. A senior EU official briefing the ambassadors conceded there were concerns about a tweet earlier on Friday by the Conservative MP and chairman of the Eurosceptic European Research Group, Jacob Rees-Mogg, stating that the British government should disrupt the EU from within in the event of a long extension of EU membership. “The tweet of Jacob Rees-Mogg showed what they are capable of.” Earlier in the day a European commission spokesman played down the impact of Rees-Mogg’s remarks. “We hope for more clarity from London before next Wednesday.”

Brexit: bill to prevent no-deal passes Commons by one vote

The bill, spearheaded by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, passed late into the night, with MPs defeating a number of obstructive amendments from both Brexiters and the government. It finally passed its third reading about half an hour before midnight by just one vote – 313 ayes to 312 noes – and must now pass the House of Lords. The bill was almost scuppered during a frenzied day in parliament after MPs initially voted by a majority of just one – 312 to 311 – to let the snap bill proceed. Cooper and Letwin then had six hours to pass the bill’s second reading, committee stage and third reading through the House of Commons. Bercow said it was precedent for the Speaker to vote with the government, which had opposed the motion and the amendments. The government opposed both the Cooper-Letwin motion and Benn’s amendment. Speaking in the debate, Letwin said the government’s plan to seek an extension was an “enormously welcome development” and he did not have doubts that they would seek to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but there was still a need to pass legislation. “It is right she puts that forward, and then the house will decide.” Labour and the SNP whipped in support of the motion. MPs voted through the second stage of the bill at 7pm and after voting on a long series of amendments passed it around 11.30pm. The newly passed legislation could be debated in the Lords as soon as Friday or Monday, where it is likely to encounter attempts to frustrate its progress by Eurosceptic peers.

Civil servants handling no-deal plans offered mental health support

British civil servants have been offered mental health support to ease the stress of preparing for a no-deal Brexit, it has emerged. 'All I hear is anger and frustration': how Brexit is affecting our mental health Read more It coincided with the recruitment of about 1,300 staff as Defra bolstered its “emergency preparedness in case of a no-deal scenario”, with the department responsible for food and water, waste strategies and animal movements – meaning it has one of the largest no-deal Brexit workloads. A Defra spokesperson said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of our staff is always a priority for Defra and we have a range of services on offer to support staff’s mental health. This short-term contract expired at the end of January and bolstered our own wellbeing services for two months while we made changes to our existing employee support.” It is understood the service was then brought in-house once the department made changes to its support programmes and increased capacity. Primarily for those working in EU exit hubs during emergency preparedness in case of a no-deal scenario.” The Gloucester-based employee assistance company Care First was paid £40,000 to provide the support services to Defra staff in London, York and Bristol. The contract was awarded on 30 November last year, although it began on 1 November. “Pressure and stress are not uncommon within most people’s daily working lives, but if not managed effectively can have a significant and negative impact on productivity, morale and the bottom line.” In a letter to the EU energy and environment parliamentary sub-committee in November, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said Defra was doing everything in its power to prepare for a no-deal scenario. He recognised that such an outcome would complicate live animal exports and that regardless of the nature of Brexit, the UK was undertaking measures to increase its surveillance capacity as it prepares to become an “independent coastal state”. Gove also said farmers and food producers would face “considerable turbulence”, with food prices rising in the event of no deal amid friction on the border and potential tariffs. It has been reported that Defra still requires approval for eight pieces of Brexit-related no-deal legislation.

Ministers warned over planes and troops in no-deal Brexit

Cabinet ministers were told they must agree emergency contingency plans to keep planes flying to North America and Australia, as well as keeping British troops legally in Bosnia, in case the EU forces a no-deal exit. Before their marathon cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, briefed ministers that major security and commercial decisions would need to be completed if Brussels rejected Theresa May’s plan to ask for a short extension to article 50. A cabinet source said the decisions were likely to result in large costs to the taxpayer and that decisions would also need to be taken on direct rule in Northern Ireland and payment of the UK’s £39bn divorce bill to the EU. Negotiations would need to be urgently completed on a future fisheries agreement so that EU fishing boats could be expelled from British waters. Sedwill, the UK’s highest-ranking civil servant, is said to have warned cabinet ministers that some of the biggest decisions were likely to be very difficult to reverse, because they involved international agreements. The warnings from Sedwill, who is also May’s national security adviser, follow an earlier letter he wrote to ministers warning that no deal would lead to food price rises and a reduction in security capacity. Sedwill also warned that the UK would face a recession “more harmful” than the 2008 financial crisis and that food prices could increase by up to 10%. On Wednesday, Lord Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, called for the analysis to be made public. “The publication of such advice now is vital to ensure that parliament is fully informed, and to avoid any suggestion that information has been partially leaked to support a particular point of view.” At least 14 members of May’s cabinet spoke out against the possibility of a long article 50 extension and would only endorse a short Brexit extension. However, on Wednesday the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said that unless the withdrawal deal was passed within nine days the UK would crash out of the EU or have to sign up to a long delay.

Corbyn and May agree to more talks after ‘constructive’ first day

Jeremy Corbyn will resume Brexit talks with the prime minister on Thursday, after Labour tensions over a second referendum burst into the open, with the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, writing to colleagues to insist any pact must be put to a public vote. Thornberry wrote to colleagues to say that she was unable to attend for personal reasons – but would have insisted any deal must be subject to a public vote. “What I would have said is that if we look like reaching any other decision than confirmatory vote that would be in breach of the decision made unanimously by conference in Liverpool and overwhelmingly supported by our members and it needs to be put to a vote‎ by the shadow cabinet,” the letter said. She said the cabinet had held a vote on Tuesday and the shadow cabinet should adopt the same procedure. If it did, she said, “can I – in writing – confirm that my votes are that yes, any deal agreed by parliament must be subject to a confirmatory public vote, and, yes, the other option on the ballot must be remain”. April 3, 2019 That is the careful formulation used by the leadership since Labour shifted its position towards support for a referendum in February – and falls short of Thornberry’s position that any deal should be subject to a public vote. Speaking in favour of the referendum option in the indicative votes process, he told the House of Commons: “At this late stage it is clear that any Brexit deal agreed in this parliament will need further democratic approval.” The Scottish National party, which commands 35 votes in the Commons, has strengthened its demands for a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal agreed after May’s cross-party talks, although it has not yet made that a precondition for its support of a new soft Brexit proposal. Starmer, who is one of the more vocal advocates for a referendum in the shadow cabinet, accompanied Corbyn at the meeting, together with Labour’s chief whip, Nick Brown, and strategy and communications director Seumas Milne. Play Video 1:52 But, unlike in previous meetings with the prime minister, Corbyn took the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who has expressed scepticism about a referendum. If May cannot secure Labour’s backing for a compromise deal, she hopes to win Corbyn’s sign-up for a binding process in the Commons to decide what form of Brexit is acceptable.

No guarantee EU would grant long article 50 extension, says Macron

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has said it should not be taken for granted that the EU would grant the UK a long extension on its departure from the bloc. Welcoming Ireland’s Leo Varadkar to Paris for talks at the Élysée on Tuesday, Macron said that as the clock ticked down and a no-deal Brexit became more likely, it was far from evident that the EU would agree to a British request for a further article 50 extension. “A long extension, implying the UK takes part in European elections and European institutions, has nothing easy or automatic about it,” Macron said. “I say that again very strongly. Our priority must be the good functioning of the EU and the single market. The EU can’t be held hostage long-term by the resolution of a political crisis in the UK.” No-deal Brexit more likely by the day, says Michel Barnier Read more He continued: “The three times rejection of the withdrawal agreement by the House of Commons and the rejection of all alternative plans now puts us on the path of a UK exit without a deal. “As the European council decided in March, it’s now up to the UK to present a credible alternative plan backed by a majority before 10 April in order to avoid that. Publicly, he has positioned France as the toughest-talking nation in the Brexit saga, stressing the need for the UK to present a way forward. Macron said the EU’s priority was protecting its workings and the single market: “We have a future to build together in the EU and a future relationship to build with the UK, which will be an ally, but we can’t spend the next months still trying to fix the rules of our divorce and looking to the past.” Macron met Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, to discuss no-deal plans for the Irish border as well as how to handle any extension request from Theresa May. Macron said the EU had total “unity and solidarity” with Ireland.

MPs to table emergency bill forcing May to request Brexit delay

The effort is being led by Yvette Cooper, a senior Labour MP, and Sir Oliver Letwin, a Tory former minister, who want to get their one-line bill through the House of Commons in just one day on Wednesday. Where next for Brexit? 1 April MPs rejected all indicative votes 3 April More indicative votes Another meaningful vote Cooper (business motion) Clear result Passes Passes Rejected Commons debate Possible runoff with May’s deal Passes Lords debate MPs’ choice wins May’s deal wins Passes Government goes back to Brussels May makes plan for article 50 extension Passes 10 April Possible extension Leave after short extension Brussels approves at EU summit 12 April No-deal exit Revoke article 50 Extend article 50 23 May UK takes part in EU elections Second referendum Renegotiate with EU General election 1 April MPs rejected all indicative votes 3 April More indicative votes Another meaningfulvote Cooper (Business motion) Passes Clear result Passes Rejected Commons debate Passes Possible runoff with May’s deal Lords debate MPs’ choice wins Passes May’s deal wins May makes plan for article 50 extension Government goes back to Brussels Passes 10 April Leave after short extension Brussels approves at EU summit Possible extension 12 April No-deal exit Revoke article 50 Extend article 50 23 May UK takes part in EU elections Second referendum Renegotiate with EU General election Guardian graphic An amendment passed by MPs last week gives them the power to take control of the order paper on certain dates, which they are hoping will give parliament time to debate and pass the bill before May attends an EU summit in Brussels next Wednesday. This is the natural point at which the prime minister would have to request an extension to article 50 in order to stop the UK crashing out without a deal on April 12. Cooper said the government could decide how long an extension to propose. 3 April 2019 Parliament debates again Parliament may decide to have another set of indicative votes - possibly on the paper will be a compromise option that combines a customs union with a confirmatory public vote. 4 April 2019 Another meaningful vote? EU leaders would decide how long at a summit on this date. However, if Brexit has been further delayed, the UK would hold European elections on the Thursday. Cooper and Letwin brought forward their legislation against no deal after MPs failed to alight on a consensus for an alternative to May’s Brexit deal in indicative votes on Monday. A source close to the Independent Group said there was a real risk that a win for a customs union in the House of Commons could have scuppered the chances of a new poll and that referendum supporters had already compromised by supporting the indicative votes process, which put their preferred option at risk.