Backbench bid to allow Parliament to seize control of Brexit process

A cross-party group of senior backbench MPs has launched a bid to allow Parliament to decide what kind of Brexit deal should be negotiated in an expected extension of talks with Brussels.

Their call for a series of “indicative votes” to determine MPs’ preferred Brexit outcome was selected for debate by Speaker John Bercow as the House of Commons prepared to vote on delaying EU withdrawal beyond March 29.

But Mr Bercow sparked fury among Brexiteers by blocking debate on another amendment, signed by 127 MPs, which sought to rule out a second EU referendum.

Senior Conservative backbencher Sir Bernard Jenkin told the Commons there was “some concern” over the decision and asked the Speaker – in an apparent reference to long-standing rumours that he opposes Brexit – what MPs should conclude about “your views on these matters”.

Mr Bercow selected a rival amendment calling for a second referendum for debate, as well as another from Labour backbencher Chris Bryant challenging Theresa May’s plan to bring her Withdrawal Agreement back to the Commons for a third “meaningful vote”.

But he insisted that MPs should “not conclude anything” about his views from his decisions, insisted that he tried to “always do my best to be fair”.

A spokesman for the People’s Vote campaign said they regard the second referendum call, tabled by Independent Group MP Sarah Wollaston, as premature.

“We do not think today is the right time to test the will of the House on the case for a new public vote,” said the spokesman. “Instead, this is the time for Parliament to declare it wants an extension of Article 50 so that, after two-and-a-half years of vexed negotiations, our political leaders can finally decide on what Brexit means.”

Conservative MPs have been given a free vote on Mrs May’s motion, which proposes a one-off delay of Brexit day to June 30 if her deal is passed ahead of next week’s EU summit in Brussels, in order to allow necessary legislation to be completed.

But it warns that if her Agreement is rejected for a third time – following overwhelming defeats by 230 votes in January and 149 votes this week – any extension would have to be longer and would involve the UK taking part in European Parliament elections in May.

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington told MPs that in this case, the Government would stage two weeks of debate following the March 21-22 summit for the Commons to try to establish a majority around a different plan.

The cross-party amendment, tabled by Labour’s Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper and Tory Sir Oliver Letwin, would force a series of votes to indicate MPs’ preferences.

European Council president Donald Tusk has indicated that the EU may be ready to offer a lengthy extension to negotiations if the UK wants to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.

But Mrs May left no doubt that she opposes a lengthy delay, telling MPs: “I do not think that would be the right outcome. But the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.”

Senior ministers were meeting for a special political Cabinet at 10 Downing Street as debate got under way in the Commons.

Chancellor Philip Hammond said he was “certain” that MPs would vote for a delay to Brexit.

He denied being at odds with the Prime Minister, after he called for Parliament to seek a “consensus” solution to Brexit and to “explore other options” if her deal is voted down for a third time next week.

But Labour called on him to join them in cross-party talks on finding a “compromise” which can command the support of Parliament, after Mrs May’s authority was severely dented by defeat in a vote to rule out a no-deal Brexit on Wednesday.

A Labour amendment demanding an extension to Article 50 withdrawal negotiations to provide time to “find a majority for a different approach” was also selected by the Speaker for debate.

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Any extension must be approved unanimously by the 27 remaining EU states, and Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl said there could be “some problem” in obtaining this if it took Brexit beyond the date of elections.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told RTE radio: “If you have a long extension of, say, 21 months to the end of 2020 – whatever the period would be – then Britain has a legal entitlement to have representation in the European Parliament” and so must take part in EU elections.

Mr Tusk said he would appeal to leaders at the European Council summit to be “open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.

Philip Hammond urged hard Brexiteers to consider backing Theresa May’s deal when it returns to the Commons.

“I understand why they may not find the Prime Minister’s deal perfectly in line with their view of the optimum future relationship,” he told Sky News.

“But it is clear the House of Commons has to find a consensus around something, and if it is not the Prime Minister’s deal, I think it will be something that is much less to the taste of those of the hard Brexit wing of my party.”

And he added: “I am very happy with the Prime Minister’s deal.

“I would be delighted if a consensus emerges behind the Prime Minister’s deal over the next day or two.

“But I think we also have to explore other options for Parliament to express a view about how we resolve this impasse.”

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Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell told Sky: “Philip Hammond said he was opposed to no deal and was interested in compromise.

“We are saying to Philip Hammond ‘You said yesterday you and other MPs in your party are looking for compromise. Join us now in working through that compromise, because we think MPs, in the interests of the country, will put party politics aside and do that’.”