The government is facing a Tory rebellion over its last-minute amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will put an exact time and date on Brexit.
Update: David Davis has now confirmed details of a separate bill. Read more here.
The amendment – which would enshrine the moment of departure as 11pm on 29 March 2019 – was put forward by the Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU) last week, amid another period of turmoil for the government.
As well as suffering a second cabinet resignation in a week, the Prime Minister was unable to put a positive spin on Brexit talks, which are stuck at the same point they have been for many weeks, despite having gone through another round of official negotiations. Today Theresa May met with Europe-wide businesses who urged her to break the impasse before December.
But the government’s hope of looking tough by imposing a red line on timing has been condemned by backbench Tories.
One told City A.M. there was “widespread disquiet” among Conservative MPs over the amendment.
“There is no point sending out signals of toughness if what you’re doing is just tying your hands,” he said, adding it was “asking for trouble”, given how down to the wire talks are now expected to be. After a deal is struck it has to be ratified by both the European and UK parliaments, meaning the UK would either “drop into a hole” or have to hurriedly repeal the amendment and extend EU membership for a short period.
“The government’s amendment I find frankly incomprehensible, and it could cause real trouble at the end of the process. It’s so odd, I’m not minded to support it.”
Another added: “I can’t understand why the amendment is needed. Many colleagues feel the same and were very unhappy about the Prime Minister’s [Daily Telegraph] article.”
If the amendment is voted on this week “it could be defeated”, the MP added.
A third backbencher said he would support the government but admitted the amendment was “not legally necessary” and that it could wind up causing a Tory revolt.
“They have put it in to reassure the hard Brexiteers that there is a deadline for when we leave… [but] the numbers are so tight, in this environment you only need a few people to cross the floor. Any threat of rebellion is very potent.”
The government amendment is just one of several hundred amendments that have been put forward since passing its second reading by the skin of its teeth. There are 188 pages of total amendments and proposed new clauses to the bill, which reaches the committee stage this week.
Ironically, many amendments – which were at one point expected to cause embarrassment for the government – are now expected to be waved through.
Brexit secretary David Davis has met with some of the more prominent MPs, including Dominic Grieve, to address concerns and a Number 10 spokesman said this morning that government was “prepared to listen to colleagues across the house”.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has written to other party leaders urging them to join forces in opposing the amendment, describing it as a “naked attempt by Theresa May at a stitch-up which would deny Parliament’s right to a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal”.
Labour is planning to use the opportunity to hammer home just how tenuous May’s grasp on power is.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, has written to the Prime Minister over the weekend claiming the bill is incompatible with her own policy towards transitional arrangements, as set out in the Florence speech, because it ends the role of the European Court of Justice in March 2019.
Starmer also argues that she “does not have the authority within her party to amend the bill because of extreme Brexiteers in her cabinet and on the Tory backbenches”. He cites 14 Conservative MPs, including senior Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, who have contradicted government policy when talking about transition.
During tomorrow’s debate Labour will trigger a vote on its own amendments, to include a time-limited transitional deal retaining membership of the Single Market and customs union.
In his letter, Starmer said: “I believe there is a sensible majority in the House of Commons for transitional arrangements that serve the national interest. That is why I am urging the government to adopt an agreed position on transition and to support our amendments in the Commons on Tuesday.”