Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category

Why Churchill’s legacy marks a fault line in British politics

LONDON — He has been dead more than half a century, but Winston Churchill still has the power to set the U.K. political agenda.

Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s decision to brand the wartime leader a “villain” for his role in suppressing a strike in a Welsh mining town more than a century ago merited responses from the prime minister’s official spokesman, the leader of the House of Commons and the mayor of London.

It even briefly supplanted Brexit as the main topic of national political conversation.

The whole episode, prompted by a two-word answer to a quick-fire question at a POLITICO London Playbook event Wednesday evening, is another reminder that Churchill is lodged deeply in the psyche of the British establishment — and the Conservative Party in particular.

Revering his leadership of the country during World War II is a matter of pride for some. For most it’s just sound history. His words and deeds of that time are rarely contested. McDonnell himself, responding to the storm he created, acknowledged Churchill was “obviously a hero” in the war years.

“The British public will reach its own judgment on this characterization of Churchill” — Theresa May’s spokesman

The rest of his life and career is much more contentious.

But for someone who within months could be running Her Majesty’s Treasury, McDonnell’s “villain” comment is still a political risk — such is the esteem in which Churchill is held.

As Theresa May’s own spokesman was at pains to point out to Westminster journalists on Thursday, at a daily press briefing, Churchill topped a public poll of “Greatest Britons” in 2002.

“The British public will reach its own judgment on this characterization of Churchill,” the spokesman added, before recalling that May herself has “quoted and referenced Sir Winston Churchill on many occasions, and acknowledged him as one of the great prime ministers of the 20th century.”

Churchill topped a public poll of “Greatest Britons” in 2002 | Keystone/Getty Images

She even has a picture of him on the wall of her Downing Street office, the spokesman said.

Clearly, to stand in Churchill’s shadow is still a mark of honor for many politicians — and to condemn him is probably still an unwise move for any party that wants to be electable.

‘White supremacist’

But Churchill’s memory is not so sacred as to be beyond reproach.

Critical assessments are now much more mainstream than they were, even as recently as that public vote of 2002.

Responding to claims last month by a Green party member of the Scottish parliament, Ross Greer, that Churchill was a “white supremacist” and “mass murderer,” Tory peer Danny Finkelstein agreed in the Times earlier this week that the first assessment, at least, was correct.

“Churchill justified British imperialism as being for the good of the ‘primitive’ and ‘subject races’ … to call him a white supremacist is nothing but the truth. And it is never a good idea to deny the truth,” Finkelstein wrote. “To insist that for Churchill to be a great man he must never have thought or done anything bad is to insist that the world is divided into good and bad people and you can only be one or the other.”

It may have been this that Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, was referring to when he said the former prime minister was “an imperfect leader” and that “he did many things that I would disagree with, with the benefit of hindsight.”

“It is hard for one generation not to be irritated when its ideas and assumptions are challenged by the new generation” — Danny Finkelstein

McDonnell’s comment fit within a tradition of left-wing resentment of Churchill for his role, as home secretary in 1910, in using the army to crack down on striking coal miners in the South Wales mining town of Tonypandy. One protester died and hundreds were injured, though Churchill’s responsibility for sending in the troops is contested by historians.

Greer’s critique, by contrast, reflected the extent to which Churchill’s record is being reassessed by a new generation that is far more queasy about adulating such a man — no matter what his achievements.

It is in the same vein as student protests at universities across the U.K. that have forced colleges to remove statues and other tributes to colonial era benefactors and alumni whose actions are deemed by a new generation to be beyond the pale.

Finkelstein detected “something else at play, something beyond Churchill” in the increasingly heated debate about his legacy.

“It is hard for one generation not to be irritated when its ideas and assumptions are challenged by the new generation,” he wrote. “We think we have done our best to reach an enlightened view of the world and it can be annoying to have our heroes and values questioned.”

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has written a biography of Churchill | Pool photo by Hannah McKay/Getty Images

That is not to say some of Churchill’s defenders won’t fight back hard. In an op-ed for the Telegraph, Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — who has written a biography of Churchill — accused McDonnell of peddling “myths of the old hard left.”

“Churchill was not only a man with a conspicuous social conscience but probably the greatest leader this county has ever had. What on earth has happened to Labour?” he wrote.

Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, who is also a Tory MP, condemned the shadow chancellor as a “Poundland Lenin” and declared his remark a “very foolish and stupid thing to say.”

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned Greer’s intervention last month, saying Churchill was the “greatest Briton who ever lived.”

“You only have the freedom to make stupid, ill-informed comments because he fought for your freedom. Some irony?” he added.

The Brexit factor

While serving as a brief distraction from the daily political grind of Brexit, the battle over Churchill’s memory — and the wider generation culture war it is part of — is intimately connected to Britain’s EU departure.

His name and support was invoked by both sides of the debate during the referendum — an argument that for most was settled by Soames, who said he thought he would have wanted to remain in the EU.

Yet at a private event late last year, Johnson — a leading light in the Brexit campaign — recalled the “giant bet” his hero took in the 1930s by insisting the Nazi regime must be resisted at a time when that was by no means a mainstream view. He cited the fact as evidence that “sometimes you do need to do the difficult thing, and you do need to take a position that everyone says is too fraught with risk.”

One can only guess what modern day parallel he had in mind.

Churchill was chosen by a panel of experts to be among four “leaders” in the running — but lost out in the public vote to a much more forward-looking figure: Nelson Mandela.

With the future so uncertain, and the odds — in the view of many observers — stacked against success, it is perhaps no wonder that British politicians cling so tightly to a national hero who, despite being wrong about so much, ended up being right at the most important moment.

As for the wider British population, while still holding Churchill dear, they may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

May’s spokesman declined to mention that in a more recent BBC TV poll, earlier this year, to find the 20th century’s greatest global icon, Churchill was chosen by a panel of experts to be among four “leaders” in the running — but lost out in the public vote to a much more forward-looking figure: Nelson Mandela.

In the final itself, the public picked a contemporary of Churchill’s, and also a war hero: computing pioneer Alan Turing.

Westminster might still obsess about Churchill. But those Britons who considered a black South African leader and a gay scientist more iconic than their wartime leader appear to be moving on.


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Theresa May loses symbolic vote on her Brexit strategy

LONDON — Theresa May failed to win parliamentary backing for her Brexit strategy in a symbolic vote which, while non-binding, risks undermining her attempt to renegotiate a deal with the EU.

Her government lost by 303 votes to 258, after several Brexiteer Conservative MPs abstained over concerns that, by backing the government’s motion, they would be opposing the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal on March 29.

The defeat changes very little of substance. The vote was non-binding and MPs will get another chance to have a say in two weeks’ time if May has not brought back her deal for ratification by then.

But the decision of members of the Conservative backbench European Research Group to withhold their support is damaging for May. It is these MPs she is hoping to placate by negotiating changes to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop plan — changes Brussels has so far given no indication it is prepared to consider.

The Brexiteers’ willingness to embarrass May, even after they tentatively backed her renegotiation bid two weeks ago, reveals a group in no mood to compromise, and could further diminish hope that the EU will give ground.

Downing Street blamed Corbyn and Labour — who opposed the motion — for the defeat.

May was not in the House of Commons to hear the result.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on her to “admit that her strategy has failed and bring forward to the House a coherent plan … to prevent the catastrophe of no-deal exit on March 29.”

But Downing Street blamed Corbyn and Labour — who opposed the motion — for the defeat.

“While we didn’t secure the support of the Commons this evening, the prime minister continues to believe, and the debate itself indicated, that far from objecting to securing changes to the backstop that will allow us to leave with a deal, there was a concern from some Conservative colleagues about taking no deal off the table at this stage,” a spokesman said.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said that he is “happy to confirm” that the U.K. would still leave the EU on March 29 | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Brexiteers’ objection to the government motion centered on its stipulation that by backing it, MPs would be backing the approach adopted by the House of Commons in a previous round of symbolic votes on January 29.

One of the amendments passed that day expressed the Commons’ rejection of the no-deal scenario — a rejection endorsed by opposition parties and many Conservatives, but not by the government and the Brexiteers, who want to keep the option on the table.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, opening the five-hour debate that preceded the vote, said when pressed that he is “happy to confirm” that the U.K. would still leave on March 29, even if no deal with the EU has been ratified.

Conservative grandee Oliver Letwin who, along with a cross-party group of MPs, is advocating a plan to stop a no-deal Brexit, said that Barclay’s comments have led him to “finally” believe that May would “when the chips are down” be prepared to allow a no-deal Brexit.

“The secretary of state informed us that that is the policy of her majesty’s government if the prime minister’s deal does not succeed. That is a terrifying fact,” he said.

An amendment from Conservative MP Anna Soubry, demanding that the government publish its latest internal documents relating to the impact of a no-deal Brexit on business and trade, was pulled after the government pledged to meet with her to discuss which documents should be published and then to “commit” to release them.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.


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MPs with constituencies far from Westminster choose different ways to represent their voters

MPs face demands on their time in both Westminster and their constituency. The greater the distance between the area they represent and Parliament, the more this requires trade-offs. David M. Willumsen finds that the type of parliamentary activities an MP takes part in is affected by the distance of their constituency from Westminster, which has implications for the principle of equal representation.

Equality of citizens in the democratic process is a cornerstone of representative democracy: all voters should be equally represented. As such, analysing systematic differences in the quality of representation is a central question in political science, which has been explored with regards to interest groups, voter wealth and income, gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and educational levels. The role geography plays in representation, however, remains relatively unexplored.

Legislators face a large number of demands on their time, and with both Parliament and the constituency exerting a strong pull, they face trade-offs regarding were to spend their limited time. One aspect of this trade-off is, however, beyond their control: the extent to which their constituency is geographically near to, or far away from, the capital. A more distant constituency requires increased travel time, which decreases the time available for activities both inside and outside of the legislature.

In an article recently published in West European Politics, I explore how MPs’ representative activities are influenced by the constraints imposed on them by geography, and how MPs respond to the limitations imposed by a more remote constituency. Do legislators follow a logic of compensation, engaging in other, less time-sensitive representational activities in the capital? Or are they driven by a different logic, one based on a centre-periphery dynamic, where voters from more distant constituencies have a different relationship with the state, and expect different forms of representation than those closer to the capital?

To explore these questions, I collected the vote attendance records in the UK’s House of Commons (2005–15) and the Early Day Motions (EDMs) tabled in the same period. Attendance at votes is a good proxy for presence in the capital (and consequently for other activities pursued in the legislature), as MPs are expected to attend votes when possible. EDMs, non-binding motions on which neither debates nor votes are held, and which can be signed at any time, are a good example of a non-time-sensitive compensational representational activity. EDMs can be used by MPs to emphasise their role in the political process, while signalling to constituents that their MP is hard at work representing their interests in the capital. The UK House of Commons serves as an ideal case to explore these questions. There is wide geographical variation in the location of constituencies relative to the capital, and all MPs are elected using the same, geographically based, electoral system.

The key findings in terms of attendance are shown in Figure 1: regardless of whether remoteness is measured as distance or as travel time, the farther away a constituency is from Westminster, the fewer votes are attended by its MP. The extent to which this is the case, however, depends on the day of the week a vote takes place. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays (the two overlapping top lines), attendance is highest, and independent of how remote a constituency is; the two lines are essentially flat. On Mondays, there is a small effect of remoteness on attendance, with MPs from more remote constituencies attending votes at a lower rate than those from constituencies nearer London. A much stronger effect was found for attendance on Thursdays and Fridays, where MPs whose constituencies are far from Westminster attended votes at much lower rates than their fellow legislators from more proximate constituencies.

Figure 1: Effect of remoteness on vote attendance

Calculating the predicted attendance rates while holding all other variables at their means shows that an increase in travel time from 15 minutes to five hours would lead to a drop in the attendance rate of 5.8 percentage points, while an increase in the distance between Westminster and the constituency from 1km to 600km would lead to a decrease of 7.9 percentage points. Variations in constituency remoteness thus lead to both substantial and significant differences in attendance rates.

MPs’ attendance rates are thus clearly influenced by the remoteness of their constituency; the farther away, and the longer the travel time, the fewer votes they attend. As such, constituencies farther from London are less well-represented in Westminster. This raises the question of whether MPs use non-time-sensitive activities to compensate for lower attendance rates.

The key results from analysing the signing of EDMs are shown in Figure 2. As can be seen, for MPs elected in constituencies relatively near London (under 300km/less than 3 hours’ travel time), the lower their attendance rate, the more EDMs they sign, indicating that they are indeed using non-time-sensitive activities to compensate for their lower attendance rate.

Figure 2: Effect of remoteness on EDM signing rates

For MPs from more distant constituencies (400+ km/5+ hours), this is not the case. Instead, for such MPs, the higher the attendance rate, the greater the share of EDMs signed, indicating that a different logic is at play, which places a higher value on showing constituents that a legislator is active on their behalf in the capital. These MPs also use EDMs to signal their voters, but are not doing so in a compensatory manner. Rather, the driving force appears to be a centre–periphery dynamic, where good representation is perceived differently depending on how far removed a constituency is from the capital.

Thus, the MPs with the highest attendance rate, who have little to compensate for, differ in their behaviour depending on how remote their constituency is; the ones from more remote constituencies use EDMs in addition to attendance to signal to their voters that their interests are being represented at the centre, whereas MPs with similar attendance rates from more centrally located constituencies have no need to send such signals. Less active MPs behave much the same regardless of where their constituency is located.

Emphasising these centre-periphery dynamics, MPs from nationalist parties – Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the SDLP in Northern Ireland (Sinn Féin do not take their seats in Westminster) – were found to attend significantly fewer votes, but sign more than twice as many EDMs as MPs from other parties, all other things being equal. MPs from these nationalist parties use EDMs to draw attention to the interests and concerns of their voters in their home nation much more than Labour, Conservative and other UK-wide party MPs do, while placing less emphasis on legislative work, as indicated by their lower attendance rates. This supports the argument that for MPs from more remote constituencies, EDMs are used to signal voters that their concerns are being raised at the centre, and are not a primarily a compensatory device.

In summary, and similar to the findings of systematic differences in representation based on gender, race, and income, substantial differences in representation exist driven by geographic factors, indicating that voters are unequally represented and may have worse access to the levers of power depending on where they live.

This work shows how the physical location of the capital matters for representation. While it is a rare event, capitals can be moved, as the examples of Brasília (previously Rio de Janeiro) and Berlin (Bonn) illustrate. As such, when faced with the choice of where to place a country’s capital, one consideration should be geography. By choosing a capital in a central geographic location, a lessening of systematic differences in political representation may be achieved.

_______________

Note: This post was originally published on Democratic Audit. It draws on the author’s article ‘So far away from me? The effect of geographical distance on representation’, published in West European Politics (open access). Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain

About the Author

David M. Willumsen has worked as a post-doctoral Researcher (Universitätsassistent) at the University of Innsbruck since October 2016. He holds a PhD from the European University Institute, Florence.

 

John McDonnell: Forcing a UK general election now ‘unlikely’

LONDON — Labour’s chances of forcing a general election to renegotiate Brexit are now “unlikely,” the party’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Wednesday.

The remarks, in a live POLITICO London Playbook interview Wednesday, suggest the opposition party is inching toward a compromise Brexit deal with the government — or a second referendum.

McDonnell said he agreed with the party’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer who said pushing for a general election was no longer a “credible option.” Starmer’s intervention sparked a sharp response from Jeremy Corbyn’s office, which insisted an early election remained the party’s “preferred option.”

Asked whether Starmer was right, McDonnell replied: “We’re still in the hope of a general election, but it’s unlikely, so, yeah, I think [he is].”

McDonnell’s remark suggests Labour’s options are narrowing as the clock ticks down to March 29, the scheduled date for Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Speaking to London Playbook editor Jack Blanchard, McDonnell said Theresa May was “floundering” and predicted parliament would soon take control of the process, forcing a softer Brexit on the government before voting it through before March 29.

“I think parliament is going to take it off her hands,” he said.

Referring to Labour’s demand for a permanent customs union as the price of its support for the EU withdrawal agreement, McDonnell said: “We think it could fly with parliament eventually.” He added: “Don’t underestimate the strength of feeling to prevent no deal.”

Labour’s Brexit policy calls for a customs union with the EU, but with the U.K. having a say over EU trade deals. Asked whether EU leaders had indicated to Labour that would be possible, McDonnell said he was seeking “a relationship with our European partners that reflects the size of our economy.”

He said he was encouraged by European Council President Donald Tusk welcoming Labour’s intervention, but admitted: “We’ve not had discussion in a way to enable us to say confidently that would be the case.”


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EU patience with Theresa May wears thin

It may not be the perception in London, but EU leaders feel they’ve bent over backwards to help the U.K. prime minister deliver an orderly Brexit.

They won’t be doing that anymore.

Theresa May’s failure to get the Brexit deal through parliament — and her continued failure to build a national consensus around a plan for the U.K.’s future — has led her EU colleagues to conclude they can no longer rely on her.

The idea that the likes of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Tusk have been great allies of the U.K. prime minister may sound preposterous in London — even to May herself. But whatever assistance they offered May to guard against a Brexit ideologue taking her place appears now to be drying up.

In recent days, European Council President Donald Tusk and the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, have publicly praised a plan put forward by May’s opposite number, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, that would keep Britain inside the EU’s customs union.

Those remarks, by Tusk directly to May in a face-to-face meeting last week, and by Barnier at a news conference on Monday in Luxembourg (he dubbed Corbyn’s intervention “interesting in tone and in content”), showed the EU is no longer willing to defer to May’s handling of Brexit. It underscored how frustration with her has grown so deep in Brussels that EU officials no longer see a big risk in wading directly into the U.K.’s volatile domestic political debate.

EU negotiators have moved with uncharacteristic speed to publicly torpedo British ideas they regard as false or magical thinking.

The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt was the most explicit in endorsing cross-party dialogue in Westminster. “I hope that such cross-party cooperation will now lead to a new proposal, further proposals by the British sides,” he said in Strasbourg Tuesday, while denouncing “irresponsible” hard-liners for trying to prevent such cooperation.

“In my opinion, it would surprise me that a country that has shown so much political creativity in its long history would not be able to overcome these differences,” he added.

Rapid rebuttal

In addition to the praise for Corbyn’s customs union idea — which May poured cold water on in a letter to the Labour leader on Sunday — EU negotiators have moved with uncharacteristic speed and force to publicly torpedo ideas on the British side that they regard as either false or representing magical thinking.

The EU’s deputy negotiator, Sabine Weyand, has used Twitter to debunk assertions by pro-Brexit U.K. officials or to clarify facts as Brussels sees them. “Can technology solve the Irish border problem?” she asked when May embarked on her attempt to renegotiate the Northern Ireland backstop even before she had officially put the idea to EU officials in Brussels. “Short answer: not in the next few years,” was Weyand’s conclusion.

Deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand | European Union

The EU has long signaled that it would prefer a “softer” Brexit of the type that is inherent in Corbyn’s proposal. But they are wary of him too. “He’s dealing with a party as divided as the Tories,” a senior diplomat complained. “He’s another one who seems more interested in his party than in Brexit,” said another diplomat.

Rather than boosting the Labour leader as a potential occupant of No.10 Downing Street, EU officials seem intent on encouraging a consensus to emerge in Britain. That could be a cross-party majority for Corbyn’s customs union plan (something that U.K. officials point out the House of Commons has already rejected) or a Tory majority for May’s original proposal spurred on by anger at Brussels for courting Labour.

Whatever the true goal, an EU official said Brussels is experiencing “Brexit fatigue” and that support for May has reached a new low.

EU leaders are still eager to avoid a no-deal outcome though, and are intent on showing May the deference due her office — evidenced by the willingness of Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to meet her face-to-face in Brussels last week.

In doing so, they went against objections from Dublin, which had questioned the point of the exercise with May offering nothing new, according to a diplomat briefed on the back and forth.

Nonetheless, EU leaders’ loss of faith in May is a sharp reversal from the days when they viewed her as a pragmatic Remainer who, with Tory Brexiteers circling, was their best chance for a reasonable Brexit deal.

“Many times we have asked her to reach out to the opposition but every time she put her party first and her country second” — EU27 diplomat

Back in December 2017, she even received a round of applause from her fellow leaders at the European Council summit after she successfully cleared the hurdle of the first phase of Brexit talks.

The applause has long since faded and the relationship started to unravel significantly in September when frustrations with her broke into the open at informal leaders’ summit in Salzburg, Austria.

After a carefully coordinated run-up to the summit where EU capitals had avoided complicating May’s position at her party’s annual conference, leaders were irritated by what they saw as her combative tone in an op-ed for German newspaper Die Welt in which she denounced “unacceptable” demands from the EU.

That drew an uncompromising response at the summit from Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron as well as Tusk, prompting headlines in the U.K. press that May had been “humiliated.”

Turning point

The relationship recovered sufficiently in October and November to produce the Withdrawal Agreement itself, but May’s decision to postpone the ratification vote in the House of Commons on December 11 prompted dismay in Brussels and beyond.

Apart from the five-week delay it introduced, leaders and their diplomats were irritated because London had insisted on calling a special European Council summit on a Sunday in November. Downing Street wanted the media hit of rapid approval for the deal by EU leaders ahead of the December vote that, in the end, never happened.

Consequently, leaders found themselves dealing with Brexit at the scheduled December summit that was supposed to be devoted to other pressing issues.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker receives Theresa May | Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

“The December summit was a turning point,” said an EU27 diplomat. May was unable to say what was required to secure her parliament’s backing. She evidently needed and wanted leaders to renegotiate the deal but could not or would not say so.

In the room, Macron and the other leaders expressed their disappointment, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tried to act as mediator, an EU official said. “Often she was so confused that many leaders got even more upset,” the senior diplomat said.

Other comments by May have caused offense at key times in the process. “When I heard her saying that Europeans jump the queues or that her problem is that Westminster doesn’t trust the EU, I was left wondering where is the difference with what [former Foreign Secretary and prominent Brexiteer] Boris Johnson would have said,” said a senior diplomat of a speech May delivered on immigration in November.

And EU officials watched as May moved after the rejection by parliament to tear up the backstop plan her own negotiators had proposed in the fall as an alternative to Brussels’ version.

They have grown increasingly exasperated at May’s refusal to reach across party lines, and build the consensus needed not just to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement but also to negotiate the future trade relationship — something that will likely prove even harder and more controversial.

“Many times we have asked her to reach out to the opposition but every time she put her party first and her country second,” said another EU27 diplomat.


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Theresa May tells MPs she’s still seeking backstop changes

LONDON — Theresa May is still seeking “legally binding changes” to the Irish backstop and these “can be achieved by reopening the Withdrawal Agreement,” she told MPs.

Despite the EU’s firm rejection of any changes to the legally-binding draft agreement, as communicated to May during meetings in Brussels last week, the U.K. prime minister said talks were “at a crucial stage.”

In a House of Commons statement that divulged no new information about her plan for avoiding a no-deal Brexit, May said she would press on with her plan to secure changes to the backstop, a legal guarantee for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

May also discussed strengthening employment and environmental rights in the U.K. to keep pace with and even exceed those introduced by the EU, and pledged that parliament would have a greater say in the negotiations on the future relationship with the bloc.

Members of the House of Commons Brexit committee have been contacted by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay for their views on this, she said.

Urging MPs to get behind her deal, May said that “opposing no-deal is not enough to stop it.” She confirmed that MPs would hold non-binding votes on Thursday on any amendments to a government Brexit motion, and have another opportunity to do so on February 27 if she had not put forward a revised Brexit deal for a meaningful vote by that date.

The prime minister repeated her rejection of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a permanent customs union with the EU, as a quid pro quo for his party’s support of her deal.

Responding, Corbyn accused May of “playing for time.”

“She’s … playing with people’s jobs, our economic security, and the future of our industry,” he said.

We’re not ‘purist’ about changing Brexit deal, says UK minister

The U.K. government is not “purist” about how to change the Brexit deal with Brussels to make it acceptable to MPs, the Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom said.

Her comments suggest the government has backed away from Theresa May’s insistence that changing the controversial Northern Ireland backstop must mean legal changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that was struck with the EU in November.

When the prime minister embarked on her renegotiation with Brussels two weeks ago, her official spokesperson said that, “in order to win the support of the House of Commons, legal changes to the backstop will be required. That will mean reopening the Withdrawal Agreement,” the spokesperson said.

But Leadsom, a leading Brexiteer in the Cabinet, told the BBC’s Today Program Tuesday that such a renegotiation of the 585-page document may not be necessary. “The point is to ensure that the U.K. cannot be held in a backstop [the guarantee there won’t be a return to a hard border in Northern Ireland] permanently. How it’s achieved is not something to be purist about,” she said. “I wouldn’t speculate on what exactly the outcome needs to be.”

EU leaders have consistently said they are willing to look again at the Political Declaration, but will not countenance a renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Leadsom denied that the government was deliberately delaying giving MPs another vote on the deal as time runs out before the U.K. is due to leave the EU on March 29.

“No, it’s not running down the clock.” she said. “What the prime minister is doing is … working to find a solution so parliament can support her deal.”

Leadsom said MPs would have the chance for another ‘meaningful’ vote on the Brexit deal “just as soon as we are able to demonstrate that we have met the terms of parliament’s instructions that the backstop needed to be time-limited or alternative arrangements found,” she said.

But she would not rule out the possibility that such a vote would happen after a summit of EU leaders scheduled for March 21, just days before the U.K.’s scheduled departure on 29 March.’ “It is a negotiation, it’s not possible to predict the future, but the meaningful vote will come back to parliament as soon as the issue around the backstop has been sorted out,” Leadsom said.

Asked three times if she would resign from the government if May compromised on Britain remaining in a customs union with the EU — as the opposition Labour party is demanding — Leadsom declined to say, but added: “I am staying in the government, in Cabinet, to support the prime minister in delivering on the referendum.”

Leadsom said she was also “confident” that all the necessary Brexit-related legislation would be passed through parliament by the end of March.

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