Hardline Brexit supporters are threatening to inflict yet another Commons defeat on Theresa May because they fear the government is effectively ruling out leaving the EU with no deal.
Members of the Tory European Research Group are unhappy with the wording of a No 10 motion because it endorses parliament’s vote against any Brexit without a withdrawal agreement.
The motion for debate on Thursday simply affirms “the approach to leaving the EU” backed by the Commons on 29 January, when an amendment was passed in favour of an attempt to replace the Northern Ireland backstop with “alternative arrangements”.
The motion was thought to be fairly uncontroversial until pro-Brexit supporters realised it also encompassed a second amendment passed on that day, which ruled out a no-deal Brexit. The amendment, tabled by Dame Caroline Spelman, “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship”
A government source said discussions with the ERG MPs were ongoing but said No 10 would not tweak or replace its motion to satisfy the group.
The motion is not legally binding but May will be keen to avoid an outbreak of disunity at a time when Brussels needs to be convinced that she could win parliamentary support for any concessions they offer. The prime minister still holds out hope that opposing factions of Tory MPs could swing behind an amended withdrawal agreement out of fear that the alternative would be worse.
Meanwhile with Labour…
Jeremy Corbyn faces up to 10 resignations from the Labour frontbench if he fails to throw his party’s weight behind a fresh attempt to force Theresa May to submit her Brexit deal to a referendum in a fortnight’s time, frustrated MPs are warning.
With tension mounting among anti-Brexit Labour MPs and grassroots members, several junior shadow ministers have told the Guardian they are prepared to resign their posts if Corbyn doesn’t whip his MPs to vote for a pro-referendum amendment at the end of the month
Attention is focusing on plans made by the Labour MPs Phil Wilson and Peter Kyle, under which parliament’s endorsement of a deal would be made subject to the public’s approval, echoing the model pursued for the Good Friday agreement.
“That’s where the action is,” said one backbencher. There could also be a straightforward “people’s vote” amendment when May brings an amendable vote to MPs on 27 February.
Meanwhile a blast from “the elite.”
More than 40 former British ambassadors and high commissioners have written to Theresa May warning her that Brexit has turned into a “national crisis” and urging her to delay proceedings until the government has greater clarity about Britain’s likely future relationship with Europe.
The letter, signed by many of the most senior diplomats of the last 20 years, underlines concerns that British influence in the world will wane if the country leaves Europe’s trading and foreign policy bloc.
In a joint statement they write: “As former diplomats who have served around the world we have a clear understanding of what contributes to Britain’s influence in the world. Our advice to Theresa May today is clear: we should not leave the EU when we have no clarity about our final destination. Instead we must use the mechanisms at our disposal, above all we must seek to extend the article 50 negotiating period.”
The signatories are headed by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, former permanent representative to the EU and ambassador to the US, who, on Wednesday, declared his support for the People’s Vote campaign for the first time.
Even at this late stage, the political calculus hasn’t formed.
Will 30 or so hard line Tory Brexiteers veto May’s “final “offer at the end of the month?
Will 10 – or fewer- DUP join them?
Will up to 50 or 60 Brexiteer Labour MPs redress the balance of May’s internal opponents and help deliver the final deal to avoid No Deal?
If May is finally convinced she won’t have the numbers to avoid No Deal, she will abandon the Conservative-only strategy of the past two and a half years ending in a cliffhanging climax and give way to the Cooper amendment at the end of the month. As a fallback for May, it’s attractive because in its redefined version, it merely proposes an extension of Article 50 and allows the government to specify how long the delay should be. (The EU could have other ideas but would probably assent to a British request). This motion allows a cross party majority to form. But would it merely kick the can further down the road during a pause of unknown duration in the Brexit process; or change the realities in favour of the final May deal; or provide an opening for injecting new life into support for a second referendum?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London