Prospect of rebellion over EU withdrawal plans recedes
The prospect of defeat for Theresa May in the latest round of Brexit votes appeared to be receding, as leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was “highly unlikely” that Eurosceptic Tories would rebel.
Members of the backbench European Research Group (ERG) had threatened to vote down a motion tabled by Mrs May which they said effectively endorsed efforts to block a no-deal Brexit.
But ministers warned that defeat for the PM would send the “wrong signal” to Brussels about the possibility of Parliament uniting behind the revised Withdrawal Agreement which Mrs May is seeking.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox told potential rebels Parliament was not an “internal debating society” and European negotiators would be watching to see if MPs were showing “consistency”.
“What we say is looked at and listened to by those that we are negotiating with,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“They will be looking to see whether Parliament is showing consistency because in the debates and the votes we had recently there were two things: one was that Parliament said we don’t want there to be no deal, and that we will sign up to the Prime Minister’s deal if we are able to get changes to the Irish backstop.
“Our European partners will be watching our debate and listening today to see if they get the impression that if they were to make those concessions, Parliament would definitely deliver on that.”
But former Brexit minister Steve Baker said Conservatives should not be “associated with anything” that “seems to take no deal off the table”.
Members of the ERG have been lobbying Downing Street for two days to amend the wording of Mrs May’s motion for the Valentine’s Day vote, which asks the Commons to “reiterate” its support for the approach approved in an earlier set of votes on January 29.
MPs voted on that date to send Mrs May back to Brussels to seek an alternative to the “backstop” provisions in her EU Withdrawal Agreement which are intended to ensure the Irish border stays open after Brexit.
But they also gave a majority the same day to a non-binding amendment calling on the Government to rule out a no-deal outcome.
Some Eurosceptics would welcome no deal, while others believe it must be kept as a weapon in the Government’s armoury to ensure maximum leverage in extracting concessions from the EU.
Speaking as Downing Street confirmed it would not amend the wording of the motion, backbencher Lee Rowley told the Press Association: “The Government is essentially asking me to vote for something tonight – taking no deal off the table – which isn’t Government policy.
“We are all genuinely scratching our heads this morning asking what on earth they are doing. Instead of putting forward badly worded motions, the Government should be properly focusing on the Malthouse compromise – the one and only option which brings together Leavers and Remainers and, vitally, will command a majority in Parliament.”
ERG members declined to confirm whether there would be a rebellion or speculate on possible numbers involved.
And Mr Rees-Mogg, the group’s chairman, signalled three hours before voting was due to take place that the potential revolt was off, telling ITV News: “This is a secondary issue, rather than a primary one, and that is why I think it is highly unlikely people will be voting against this motion.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “It is important that MPs support the Prime Minister today in order to send another clear message to Brussels on the need to address Parliament’s concerns about the backstop, so we can leave on time with a deal on March 29.”
Commons Speaker John Bercow selected only three of the 10 amendments tabled for debate on the floor of the Commons.
MPs are set to vote on a Labour amendment demanding that Mrs May hold a meaningful vote on her plan by February 27 or hand power to Parliament to decide the next steps.
Also selected were an SNP amendment calling for a three-month extension to Brexit negotiations and a demand from pro-EU backbenchers led by Tory Anna Soubry for the publication of the latest official assessments of the likely economic impact of no deal.
The latest showdown comes as Dutch PM Mark Rutte told the Financial Times the Netherlands is already benefiting from businesses relocating from a “diminished” Britain.
But Mrs May’s spokesman said Number 10 “disagrees entirely” with Mr Rutte’s stance, adding: “Employment is at a record high, exports are at a record high, companies are continuing to invest in the UK.
“Deloitte named the UK as Europe’s leading destination for foreign direct investment and London as the world’s top city for investment just last month.”
In a bid to keep lines open with EU leaders, Mrs May spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Wednesday evening and is expected to make further phone calls over the course of Thursday.
People’s Vote protesters seeking a second EU referendum gathered outside Parliament to demonstrate against what they termed a “blindfold Brexit”.
And pro-Brexit campaigners from the Leave Means Leave movement delivered a Valentine’s Day card for the Prime Minister to Downing Street.