British Lawmakers Vote on Amendments to Force Government’s Hand on Brexit

TOPSHOT - Pro-Brexit activists hold placards and wave Union flags as they demonstrate outside of the Houses of Parliament in London on January 29, 2019. - British Prime Minister Theresa May will seek "legal changes" to the Brexit deal she agreed with EU leaders only last month to try to …

Members of the United Kingdom Houses of Parliament voted on amendments to the Government’s Brexit bill Tuesday night, exercising their power to make alterations and changes to proceedings and — some hope — delay and derail Brexit itself.

The amendments put forward by individual MPs are a consequence of Theresa May’s Brexit plan having been voted down by MPs in January. Seven amendments in all were accepted by the remain-supporting speaker of the House John Bercow, and vary both in intent and whether they legally bind the government.

Among the most hotly anticipated is an amendment by Labour grandee Yvette Cooper, which would have the impact of extending article 50 with the intention of preventing a so-called no deal Brexit. From the other side of the house is the Graham Brady amendment, which is supported by the pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs which has been created with the intention of bringing together the Conservative party behind a single vision of Brexit — something the Tories have been totally unable to achieve for several decades.

Update — Summary

The Associated Press summarises the events of the evening:

LONDON (AP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday won a few weeks to salvage a Brexit deal but headed toward a clash with the European Union by promising to overhaul the divorce agreement she spent a year and a half negotiating with the bloc.

Trying to break the U.K.’s Brexit deadlock, May got Parliament’s backing for a bid to rework an Irish border guarantee in the withdrawal deal – a provision May and the EU both approved, and which the bloc insists cannot be changed.

“It is now clear that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal,” she said, promising to “obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement” from the EU.

The EU immediately ruled that out, insisting in a statement that the current deal with the U.K. remained the “best and only way” to achieve an orderly Brexit. French President Emmanuel Macron said the agreement “is the best accord possible. It is not re-negotiable.” Guy Verhofstadt, the top Brexit official at the European Parliament, said there was “no majority to reopen or dilute” the deal.

It was the latest disorienting chapter in a Brexit process that has grown increasingly surreal since Parliament rejected May’s divorce deal two weeks ago, leaving Britain lurching toward a cliff-edge no-deal” departure from the bloc on March 29.

A series of Commons votes Tuesday on next steps submitted by both pro-Brexit and pro-EU legislators ended up sending starkly mixed signals, as lawmakers backed a call to renegotiate the deal, and also approved a rival motion ruling out a no-deal exit.

May had urged lawmakers to “send an emphatic message” to the EU, but their response is likely to leave the bloc even more confused about British aims.

May believes her agreement can still win Parliament’s backing if it is changed to alleviate concerns about the Irish border measure, known as the backstop. The backstop would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU in order to remove the need for checks along the border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc.

The border is crucial to the divorce deal because it will be the only land frontier between the U.K. and the EU after Brexit, and because the free flow of people and goods underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Opposition to the backstop by pro-Brexit lawmakers – who fear it will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU – helped sink May’s deal on Jan. 15, when Parliament rejected it in a 432 to 202 vote.

On Tuesday, Parliament backed, by 317 votes to 301 votes, a call for the border measure to be replaced by unspecified “alternative arrangements.”

Leading Brexiteers praised the result. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Parliament had sent a “clear, unambiguous” message that the backstop had to be removed.

“I hope that our friends in Brussels will listen and that they will make that change,” he said.

But Green Party legislator Caroline Lucas, who wants a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership accused May of chasing “heated-up fantasies that have already been rejected by the EU.”

May acknowledged that the EU had “limited appetite” for changing the Brexit deal. But she vowed to go to Brussels and seek “significant and legally binding change” to the backstop. May’s office said that might include an end date to ensure it is temporary or an exit clause for Britain. Both those ideas have been repeatedly rejected by the EU.

“There can be no change to the backstop,” said Ireland’s European Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee. “It was negotiated over 18 months with the U.K. and by the U.K.”

Lawmakers voted on seven Brexit proposals Tuesday, including the border change supported by May and several measures that sought to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit.

Much of the business world says a no-deal Brexit would cause economic chaos by eliminating existing EU trade agreements and imposing tariffs, customs checks and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU, its main export market.

Most members of Parliament oppose leaving without a deal, but they rejected several proposals that tried to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government and give it to Parliament so lawmakers could stop Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. Some opposition Labour Party members sided with the government, worried about being seen as obstructing Brexit.

Lawmakers approved, by a narrow 318 votes to 310 votes, a motion ruling out a “no-deal” Brexit but not saying how that should be achieved. The vote is not legally binding, but has political force as an expression of the will of Parliament.

Tuesday’s ambiguous votes won’t mark the end of Britain’s turmoil over Brexit: There could be a rerun in two weeks. May said if she has not struck a new Brexit deal by Feb. 13, Parliament would get to vote, again, on what should happen next.

Robert Hazell, professor of government and the constitution at University College London, said the EU was “pretty resolute in not being willing to reopen the negotiations unless the British government can come back with something more specific.”

“Tonight’s votes only kick the can down the road for another two weeks,” he said.

Update 2055 — Theresa May speaks

The Prime Minister has confirmed she will be seeking “to obtain legally binding changed to the withdrawal agreement… on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border.”

In other words, some days of negotiations lie ahead.

In a change of stance, Jeremy Corbyn responded to the Prime Minister’s remarks by saying he would be willing to meet with the government to discuss these changes.

Update 2045 — Sir Graham Brady amendment passes 317-301

Last amendment of the night, and one supported by the government. Sir Graham is the chairman of the influential 1922 Backbench Committee, the body of Conservative members of Parliament who don’t have a job in the government. He’s probably best known these days for being the referee in the occasional Conservative leadership contests — having recently mediated the recent Brexiteer failed coup against the Prime Minister last year.

Brady’s amendment calls on the government to seek alternative arrangements to the Irish border backstop required by the European Union in the case of a Brexit no deal, an extremely unpopular provision among Brexiteers.

The Prime Minister will now, most likely, go to Brussels to attempt to renegotiate the Irish border backstop. Unfortunately for her, key European figures are already ruling out any renegotiation.

Update 2030 — Caroline Spelman amendment passes 218-310

An amendment has now passed in the name of Dame Caroline Spelman. It is intended to prevent a no-deal Brexit, that is to say, a proper Brexit where the United Kingdom actually leaves the European Union. Despite having passed it is not legally binding, meaning the government can technically ignore it — perhaps especially so given it passed by just eight votes. Binding or not, the success of one anti-Brexit amendment in the evening will be very cheering for pro-European Union members of the House.

Update 2010 — Second Referendum fan Rachel Reeve’s amendment defeated 290-322

Another one bites the dust — an amendment to extend article 50 by two years has been defeated. It is not unlike Yvette Cooper’s amendment but it not legally binding, advising the government to extend the Brexit process if a deal has not been reached in time.

Just two votes remain — one is the Spelman amendment, which intends to prevent the UK leading the EU without a deal altogether — a potentially explosive move. The other is Sir Graham Brady’s Conservative amendment to his own government’s business, which seeks to replace the loathed backstop. While liked by Conservative back benchers, the European Union has already dismissed it out of hand.

Update 1958 — Cooper’s amendment defeated

One of the most hotly anticipated amendments voted on tonight, Yvette Cooper’s amendment has been defeated 321 to 298. If passed, the amendment would have worked to attempt to force the government into extending Article 50, effectively delaying the Brexit process. It is this and other plots like it that high profile Brexiteer Boris Johnson has accused those trying to delay Brexit as actually drawing a “thin disguise for killing it off.”

A good evening for the government so far — all attempts to bind the government and change their plan over Brexit have so far failed. Three amendments to go…

Update 1945 — Grieve’s amendment defeated

Some cheering news for Brexiteers — diehard remainer Dominic Grieve’s amendment has been defeated, albeit by just 20 votes. Like the Cooper amendment — coming next — one of the primary purposes of Grieve’s attempt was to prevent Britain leaving the European Union fully.

Members of the Twittersphere have also pointed out that two amendments which could pave a road to a second referendum — Grieve’s and Corbyn’s — have now been defeated, reports the Telegraph.

Update 1932 — The SNP’s amendment defeated

Another defeat for pro-Europe politicians, this time Ian Blackford’s Scottish nationalist amendment. Scotland as an entity voted to remain in the European Union even if the rest of the UK left — in line for the usual policies of the SNP which would see Scotland leave the UK anyway. With just 39 votes, the amendment will probably be the least voted for tonight.

Update 1920 — Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment defeated

The first vote of the evening is for the official Labour amendment to the government’s business, and it has failed to pass 327 to 296. Had it passed, the government would have been required to set aside debating time to discuss options to prevent the United Kingdom leaving the European Union fully, restricting it to leaving only on terms the EU will permit.

Brexiteers may be cheered that Corbyn’s amendment failed, but there are five more amendments that are fully pro-Europe to vote on yet.

This story is developing…


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