MPs force major soft Brexit shift

LONDON — A super soft Brexit — or no Brexit at all — just got more likely.

In a battle of wills between the prime minister and the House of Commons on Tuesday, it was Theresa May who emerged weakened having been pushed into a series of significant concessions to anti-Brexit Conservative MPs in order to fend off a damaging parliamentary defeat.

Facing the prospect of losing a vote on a crucial amendment to the government’s flagship Brexit legislation — which was designed to empower parliament to vote down the final deal without risking a “no-deal” exit from the bloc — ministers intervened with a concession at the 11th hour even as MPs were wrapping up debate on the controversial measure. 

They reassured anti-Brexit MPs that the government would accept some of their core demands to give parliament a meaningful say on the terms of Britain’s EU divorce, including — potentially — a new deadline for a deal to be agreed with Brussels that could make it hard for the government.

The upshot is that May has survived another day in the battle to extract Britain from the European Union — and may yet pull off a compromise that wins the support of both wings of her party — but it is the rebel Remainers who believe they are now in the ascendency. That has potentially seismic consequences for the protracted and increasingly messy split from Brussels.

The government concession is all the more remarkable because of the strength of opposition to the original amendment from ministers.

The shift makes it significantly harder for the government to force through a “hard Brexit” outside the customs union and single market. It also increases the prospect of MPs forcing a referendum on the terms of the eventual deal or even of a snap election before the end of the year.

To buy off a group of Tory rebels — whose ranks were boosted by the shock resignation of Justice Minister Phillip Lee Tuesday morning — the prime minister agreed in principle, according to the rebels, to write into law a new deadline in the Brexit talks: November 30, 2018.

Under the proposal, if no deal has been reached with Brussels by this point, the government will return to the House of Commons to determine the next course of action. The strength of this commitment is yet to be seen in writing — and the Brexit department is still insisting it has not given up control of the negotiations — but the anti-Brexit rebels showed they have the numbers to force a defeat should the government renege on its pledge.

Crucially, ministers have conceded that if MPs vote down the Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels, that will not result in the U.K. crashing out of the EU with no deal — a scenario that few MPs would countenance because of the significant economic damage it would entail. Anti-Brexit MPs had argued that removing the no-deal consequence was necessary for the vote to be a meaningful one.

Pro-EU demonstrators celebrate former Justice Minister Phillip Lee following his resignation over Brexit negotiations | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The government concession is all the more remarkable because of the strength of opposition to the original amendment from ministers. Opening the debate, Brexit Secretary David Davis said: “What it actually amounts to is an unconstitutional shift, which risks undermining our negotiations with the European Union. It enables parliament to dictate to government its course of action in an international negotiation.”

The upshot of the shift may well be as dramatic as the parliamentary procedure is incomprehensible.

The battle now moves to the House of Lords, where the government will formally reveal how much it has conceded in the wording of a new amendment expected on Monday or Tuesday. The bill then returns to the House of Commons again later next week. Should the prime minister go back on her pledge, the rebels are confident their amendment will be inserted into the bill in the Lords.

MPs, ministers and officials all agreed Tuesday that a soft Brexit or even the prospect of no Brexit is greatly increased — so too the prospect of a snap early election before the end of the year.

“We have now removed every incentive from the EU for doing a deal by the end of November,” one senior U.K. government official said. “How can Boris [Johnson, the foreign secretary] and the ERG [the European Research Group of Euroskeptic MPs] live with this? It seems to wreck their plans.”

If we are heading for an impasse in November, everything is on the table.” — U.K. government official

The logic of that argument is that EU negotiator Michel Barnier would prefer the softest of Brexits — a model known as “Norway plus,” in which Britain remains in the European Economic Area (EEA) and the customs union, accepting all single market rules, including freedom of movement, and the EU’s trade policy without any representation in Brussels. Given that after November 30, the House of Commons looks set to be empowered in the negotiations, it would not be in Barnier’s interest to negotiate a harder form of Brexit before the U.K.’s self-imposed deadline.

The government was putting a combative spin on the concessions Tuesday evening: “The Brexit Secretary has set out three tests that any new amendment has to meet — not undermining the negotiations, not changing the constitutional role of Parliament and Government in negotiating international treaties, and respecting the referendum result,” a spokesperson for the Brexit department said in a statement.

“We have not, and will not, agree to the House of Commons binding the government’s hands in the negotiations.”

But government officials admitted that the concession does constrain their freedom in the Brexit talks.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s goal of a soft Brexit is now closer to becoming a reality | Balazs Mohai/EPA

Brexiteers were dejected by the turn of events, but are pinning their immediate hopes on the detail in the government’s compromise. The prime minister still has time to come up with a form of words acceptable to both sides, but the expectations of the anti-Brexit rebels have been raised significantly.

One government official said: “It’s not over yet. Yes, it’s a significant compromise but we live to fight another day. If we are heading for an impasse in November, everything is on the table. There could be a confidence motion [in the prime minister] or an early general election.”

Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, was refusing to accept the government at its word Tuesday. He said: “Facing the prospect of a humiliating defeat, Theresa May has been forced to enter negotiations with her backbenchers and offer a so-called concession. We will wait and see the details of this concession and will hold ministers to account to ensure it lives up to the promises they have made to parliament.”


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