This article titled “Government backs down on Brexit date as bill clears key hurdle” was written by Heather Stewart, Jennifer Rankin and Peter Walker, for The Guardian on Thursday 21st December 2017 05.51 Asia/Kolkata
The government has accepted a compromise over its plans to put the Brexit date into law as Theresa May’s flagship piece of legislation cleared a key hurdle in the House of Commons.
After eight gruelling days of debate spread over several weeks, and an embarrassing defeat over the issue of a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal, MPs rejected a series of other amendments to the EU withdrawal bill, allowing it to pass on to its next stage.
The widely-expected climbdown by the government was confirmed on Wednesday morning when Brexit minister Steve Baker put his name to a compromise drawn up by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin.
Letwin’s amendment tweaked the government’s own amendment, leaving the Brexit date (29 March, 2019) in the legislation, but giving MPs the power to push it back if the EU27 agree.
Paul Blomfield, of Labour’s shadow Brexit team, said: “After a humiliating defeat in the Commons last week, the government has now been forced into an embarrassing climbdown by amending it’s own amendment. Theresa May would be well advised to use the Christmas break to reflect on her chaotic approach to Brexit and stop putting party politics above the national interest.”
The withdrawal bill is aimed at bringing EU law onto the UK statute book in preparation for Brexit, allowing ministers so-called Henry VIII powers to tweak it where necessary.
During eight hours of sometimes fractious debate in the House of Commons, MPs clashed repeatedly about Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
The Commons passed both the amendment fixing the date of Brexit, and the change allowing MPs to amend this if needed. Shortly after 10.30pm the last of the amendments to be voted on was soundly defeated – a Liberal Democrat amendment requiring a second referendum on a deal attracted just 23 votes, with 319 against.
With that the marathon committee stage of the bill’s progress through the Commons was finally completed. It will go into the next part, the report stage, in the new year.
Nottingham East MP Chris Leslie sparked a rebellion among Labour backbenchers with an amendment he claimed would allow the UK to keep open the option of remaining in the customs union.
Frontbenchers were privately infuriated by the amendment, which they called “defective”, blaming Leslie and his backers for airing the divisions in his party.
A briefing note sent to Labour MPs ahead of the debate and seen by the Guardian said, “this amendment would not keep the UK in a customs union with the EU”; adding that it is “not possible to “unilaterally” remain in the customs union – or create a new customs union. This “can only ever be part of negotiations”.
Leslie and his supporters, who include a well-organised caucus of senior MPs, such as Chuka Umunna and Heidi Alexander, are keen to maintain pressure on Labour’s frontbench to adopt a clearer position on continued customs union and single market membership.
“We must be absolutely crystal clear about this: ditching the most efficient tariff-free, frictionless, free-trade area in the world is what we are on the brink of doing for something that will inevitably – inevitably – be inferior,” he said.
In the end, Leslie’s amendment was easily defeated by 320 votes to 114. However, this saw 62 Labour MPs defy their party and vote with it, the biggest Labour rebellion of the bill’s passage.
Earlier, May faced a tough quizzing over her Brexit plans from the Commons liaison committee, made up of the senior MPs who chair select committees.
The prime minister was challenged over the precise means by which MPs will get to vote on a final Brexit deal.
She dealt bullishly with the SNP MP Angus MacNeil, who asked if she had been obliged to “beg” the EU for a transition deal because she wasted time with June’s general election.
“I haven’t begged the European Union for two more years,” she said. “This is not two more years to negotiate with the EU. This is two years when practically both businesses and governments will be able to put in place the changes necessary to move from the current relationship to the future partnership we will have.”
She also insisted negotiations on a new trade arrangement with the EU could be completed before Brexit takes place in 2019, primarily because the UK was starting from a basis of already close links.
“As you will know full well, we can’t legally sign the new trade agreement with the European Union until we’re a third country, until we’re out of the European Union – 29 March 2019 – but I believe we can negotiate that arrangement in that time,” she said.
May’s upbeat assessment of the prospects for the negotiations came as the EU27’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned that the transition deal after Britain leaves the EU would have to end by 31 December 2020.
Outlining plans for the next phase of Brexit talks, Barnier, who is negotiating Brexit on behalf of the other 27 member states, said it would be logical for the transition to end then because that was the last day of the EU’s current seven-year budget.
“The transition period is useful and it will enable the public administration in Britain to get prepared for the challenges they have to face,” Barnier told reporters in Brussels.
Theresa May has called for a two-year transition and agreed that the UK will continue to make annual payments into the EU budget until 2021.
Barnier confirmed that during the transition the UK would have to apply all EU laws, including new ones agreed after 2019, without any input from British ministers or MEPs. Under the EU’s take-it-or-leave-it offer on transition, the UK would be subject to the enforcement powers of the European commission, EU agencies and the European court of justice.
The EU withdrawal bill will next have to come back to the House of Commons for its report stage, where MPs will consider more amendments – before passing to the House of Lords.
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