Article 50 row as McDonnell says Labour could back Brexit delay plan

The prospect of Britain remaining in the EU after March has increased after shadow chancellor John McDonnell signalled Labour could back plans to seek an Article 50 extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

Mr McDonnell said it was “highly likely” the opposition would back a “sensible” cross-party amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles which seeks time for a bill to suspend the withdrawal process if there is no new deal with Brussels by the end of February.

International Development Secretary Liam Fox on Wednesday warned that some amendments tabled by backbenchers presented a “real danger” constitutionally.

Accusing some MPs of plotting to stay in the EU, he said such an act would be politically “calamitous” and worse for the country than a no-deal Brexit.

Mr McDonnell had told BBC Two’s Newsnight on Tuesday: “Yvette Cooper has put an amendment down, which I think is sensible … so I think it’s increasingly likely already that we’ll have to take that option because the Government has run the clock down.”

Mr McDonnell said Labour had to go through its own party processes to determine whether they would back it, but added: “It’s highly likely but we’ll go through our normal process of consultation with our members.”

Labour’s support would give the amendment a major boost, but extending the Article 50 period would require a separate bill to pass the House of Commons in the face of Government and almost certain DUP opposition, and win backing from the other 27 EU states.

Mr Boles tweeted on Wednesday: “Front bench Labour support is very welcome but not sufficient to secure victory.

“We will need other opposition parties to follow suit and a good many Conservatives too to join them.”

Ms Cooper’s amendment is one of several tabled by MPs to the Prime Minister’s deal, the rejection of which by an overwhelming 230 votes last week has thrown into doubt proposals for a backstop to keep the Irish border open.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

In a break from usual procedures, the amendments will be voted on by MPs on January 29 in another day of high Brexit drama in the Commons which could put Mrs May under intense political pressure to change course.

One, tabled by Tory Dame Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey, would effectively rule out a no-deal Brexit.

Another, from Conservative former attorney general Dominic Grieve, would give MPs powers to take control of the parliamentary agenda on a series of days in the run-up to the official date of EU withdrawal on March 29 to pass resolutions on the way ahead.

The chairman of the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, Conservative Andrew Murrison, put forward proposals – which he said were designed to appeal to “moderate MPs who just want Brexit sorted” – for a time limit on the backstop.

Labour’s frontbench tabled its own amendment calling for a vote on the party’s plan for a customs union with the EU and on whether to legislate for a public vote.

Dr Fox, speaking from Davos on Wednesday, told BBC Radio 4’s Today that “there are many who talk about delaying Brexit when what they really mean is not having Brexit at all”, saying that would be the “worst outcome”.

Asked if he believed that a delayed Brexit – via an extended Article 50 period – was worse than a no-deal Brexit, he said: “You need to think about the political consequences as well as the short-term economic consequences.

“There is no doubt that leaving with a deal and minimising disruption both to the UK and our EU trading partners is in our best interest.

“But I think the most calamitous outcome would be for Parliament, having promised to respect the result of the referendum, to turn around and say it wouldn’t.”

Rubbish. Last week I voted for a Brexit deal that would take us out of the EU on 29 March. You voted to stop it. I am happy to vote for ANY deal that the PM recommends and that will deliver Brexit on time. I will never support revocation of Brexit.

— Nick Boles MP (@NickBoles) January 23, 2019

Mr Boles later clashed with a fellow Tory, Mike Fabricant, who echoed Mr Fox’s comments on MPs trying to block Brexit.

Mr Boles tweeted: “Rubbish. Last week I voted for a Brexit deal that would take us out of the EU on 29 March.

“You voted to stop it. I am happy to vote for ANY deal that the PM recommends and that will deliver Brexit on time. I will never support revocation of Brexit.

Tory arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is due to strike a more conciliatory tone in a speech on Wednesday.

The European Research Group chairman, who spearheaded attempts to replace Mrs May as Tory leader in December, is expected to tell the Eurosceptic Bruges Group there has been an “outbreak of realism all around”.

He is due to say: “All along we have been asking merely for the possible, not the impossible.

“And late in the day as the EU has inevitably left it, I’m sure common sense and practicality will now prevail.

“The backstop doesn’t work for unionists in the Tory party, or the DUP. The pretence that we might ever swallow it is now over.

“It’s long past time to get on and just do the feasible deal that has always been there to do.”