Britain’s battle over Brexit turns into political trench warfare
The backstop is one of the primary obstacles between Mrs May and victory in Tuesday’s vote. (Reuters: Tolga Akmen)
Britain’s battle over Brexit has turned into political trench warfare between Parliament and the Government, as Prime Minister Theresa May brought her little-loved European Union divorce agreement back to politicians who appear determined to thwart her plans.
- Only way to avoid “no deal” is to vote for the deal, Mrs May says
- MPs have tried to wrest control of Brexit from the Government
- Irish Government cannot accept Northern Ireland veto proposal on border issue
A month after postponing a vote on the deal to avert near-certain defeat, Mrs May urged Parliament to support it to prevent Britain leaving the EU on March 29 with no agreement on exit terms and future relations, an outcome that could cause economic and social upheaval.
“The only way to avoid ‘no deal’ is to vote for the deal,” Mrs May told politicians in the House of Commons on the first of five days of debate ahead of a vote next Tuesday.
Mrs May postponed the vote in mid-December when it became clear politicians would resoundingly reject the agreement, a compromise deal that has left both pro-European and pro-Brexit politicians unhappy.
Theresa May delayed a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, conceding she would have lost. (AP: Alastair Grant)
Rather than warming to Mrs May’s deal since then, MPs have tried to wrest control of Brexit from the Government and put it in the hands of Parliament.
An alliance of governing Conservative and Opposition legislators has dealt Mrs May two defeats in as many days — symbolic setbacks that suggest a power shift from the executive to the legislature.
MPs approved a motion saying that if Parliament rejected Mrs May’s divorce deal, the Government must come up with a “Plan B” within three working days. MPs would have the power to amend that plan.
Pro-EU Conservative politician Dominic Grieve, who proposed the measure, said it was intended to speed up decisions, to help avoid a no-deal Brexit and “the calamitous consequences that would follow on from it”.
The Government previously had 21 days to report back to Parliament.
In a sign of the anger and division Brexit has sown among politicians, the motion prompted bad-tempered scenes in Parliament, as Conservatives accused Speaker John Bercow of contravening parliamentary convention by allowing a vote on the amendment.
Members of the media watch as some 150 trucks leave Manston Airfield during a “no-deal” Brexit test for where 6,000 trucks could be parked at the former airfield. (AP: Matt Dunham)
Late on Tuesday, legislators backed an amendment to the Finance Bill that puts roadblocks in the way of government spending on no-deal Brexit measures.
The vote, which saw 20 legislators from Mrs May’s Conservative Party rebel and side with the Opposition, indicates that a majority in Parliament opposes leaving the EU without an agreement and will try to stop it happening.
Amid the political stalemate, pro-Brexit members of Parliament are urging the Government to ramp up preparations for leaving the EU without a deal.
Economists and businesses warn that would cause economic turmoil, as goods moving between Britain and the EU suddenly faced customs checks, tariffs and other barriers.
Northern Ireland’s border
Meanwhile, Mrs May is no closer to reaching an agreement on the “backstop” insurance mechanism aimed at keeping the Irish border open if a Brexit deal is not reached.
The land border between Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) is a major sticking point in Mrs May’s plan.
Checkpoints have not been in place since 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement brought peace after 40 years of violence between the North and the Republic.
The EU and the UK have agreed they do not want a return to a hard border, where passport and customs checks would be returned, but they cannot agree on how to achieve that.
The backstop is a safety net for the possibility that negotiations between the EU and UK break down and no deal or customs arrangements are reached.
Under the EU’s backstop proposal, Northern Ireland would have stayed in the single market and customs union while the rest of the UK withdraws, while Mrs May wanted Northern Ireland treated the same as the rest of the UK.
But the British Government failed to win over its Northern Irish allies with the concession to give its devolved assembly “a strong role” in any decision between triggering the backstop or extending a transition period if a future EU/UK relationship is not in place by December 2020.
The Republic of Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, said he could not accept a situation where Northern Ireland was handed veto powers over the backstop measure either.
“I don’t think we can have a situation whereby the Northern Ireland executive or assembly has a veto power because that would essentially give one of the two communities veto power over the other,” Mr Varadkar said, adding that he had not yet had a chance to read the proposal.
But the UK Government said it would support a change to its Brexit plan that gives Parliament the chance to vote against activating the backstop.