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Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Conservative MPs that if they do not back the Withdrawal Agreement in this week’s vote there was a risk Brexit might never happen. Hunt said, “if you want to stop Brexit, you only need to do three things: kill this deal, get an extension, and then have a second referendum. Within three weeks, those people could have two of these three things.” Warning that voters would blame the Conservatives if Brexit was stopped, Hunt said, “We are in very perilous waters… We have an opportunity now to leave on March 29, or shortly thereafter. And it’s very important that we grasp that opportunity because there is wind in the sails of people trying to stop Brexit.” Elsewhere, Environment Minister Michael Gove writes in today’s Daily Mail, “I hope that everyone who believes in our democracy — in the importance of delivering Brexit and in the critical need to unite our country — will get behind the Prime Minister’s deal this week.”
Meanwhile, Politico reports this morning that a rumoured late trip to Brussels from Prime Minister Theresa May is now unlikely to happen today, contrary to earlier reports. This comes after May’s speech in Grimsby on Friday, in which she asked the EU for “one more push” to help get the deal through Parliament.
Following May’s speech, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier outlined the EU’s proposals for assurances on the backstop. Barnier said the EU was ready to “give legal force” to the commitments made in January’s joint letter from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, adding that this would “render best endeavour [and] good faith obligations [to negotiate a future relationship to replace the backstop] even more actionable by an arbitration panel.” Barnier also added that the EU would give the UK the option to exit the all-UK aspects of the backstop unilaterally, although he warned that the Northern Ireland-only elements of the backstop “must be maintained to avoid a hard border.” He said that the UK “will not be forced into [a] customs union against its will.” In response, House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said she was “deeply disappointed” by the proposed return to a Northern Ireland-only backstop, saying, “We will not break up the United Kingdom and have a border down the Irish Sea.” Elsewhere, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told the Mail on Sunday that he will “not put his name” to any legal advice which would show the backstop could exist indefinitely, adding, “My professional reputation is far more important to me than my reputation as a politician.”
MPs are due to vote on the latest version of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on Tuesday. If the deal is voted down, MPs will vote on Wednesday on whether to proceed with No Deal. If they vote not to, there will be a further vote on Thursday on whether the Prime Minister should seek an extension to the Article 50 process. The Sunday Times reports that allies of the Prime Minister are expecting the deal to be voted down by a majority of 150. The paper also reports that Downing Street is considering a motion outlining a deal that could create a majority in the House of Commons, rather than the one which has been agreed with the EU, in a bid to show the European Commission what it would take to get a deal through Parliament.
Open Europe Director Henry Newman told BBC News on Saturday that the Government is “very likely to lose the vote again on Tuesday… we could still be looking at [a margin of defeat] well into three figures.” He added that MPs will likely vote for a delay if the deal is defeated, but “the question then becomes for how long.” Appearing separately on the BBC’s Westminster Hour this morning, Newman said, “[Michel] Barnier’s team managed to rather undermine [on Friday] the case that they were making… because they also announced slightly clumsily that they had offered… to go back to the Northern Ireland-only backstop.” Newman was also quoted in yesterday’s Sunday Times leader.
Separately, the Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay will appear before the Exiting the European Union Committee at 4pm GMT today.
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Senior Cabinet ministers have warned Theresa May she may have to offer to resign as Prime Minister, in order to persuade Conservative MPs to vote for the deal. One Cabinet minister told the paper, “I don’t believe there is a single one of us who thinks it’s a good idea for her to stay beyond June.” Allies of four leading contenders to succeed May – Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – said that the quartet are “ready to go.” In an interview with Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, Raab said that he would like to see the Prime Minister step down “in a way of her own choosing.” Other Conservative ministers and MPs expected to run in a future leadership election include Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss and backbenchers Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer, according to the Times.
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In a joint op-ed for the Sunday Telegraph, the Westminster leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Nigel Dodds, and the Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs, Steve Baker, write that “It is inevitable this unchanged Withdrawal Agreement will be voted down again. The Union of the UK is too precious to put at risk and Eurosceptics do not trust the EU to regulate our economy in the backstop.” The pair urge the Government to adopt the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise Plan B,’ under which the UK would offer to pay for a standstill transition period in the event of No Deal. One ERG source has told the Sunday Times that the group’s Chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, believes he “has only lost 12 votes” against the deal since January; another told the Financial Times, “I don’t see any sign of our people flaking away — if anything people’s positions have hardened.”
Elsewhere, the former Brexit Secretary David Davis told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday that any delay to Brexit would be a “democratic disaster.” Davis also said the Withdrawal Agreement was “worse than current [EU] membership in one sense because we can’t get out of it.”
Meanwhile, Health Minister Steve Brine told BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour today that he would resign rather than vote to pursue No Deal later this week. He said, “I think a free vote would be very smart. I would find it very difficult, actually impossible to be part of a policy that was pursuing actively No Deal.”
Separately, the Sunday Times reports that a cross-party alliance of MPs, led by Conservative Nick Boles, will table an amendment in favour of a ‘Norway-style’ Brexit if the Brexit deal is defeated next week.
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The Telegraph reports that the EU is preparing to demand a higher divorce payment from the UK if there is an extension to Article 50. A diplomatic source quoted by the paper said, “Lines are hardening against extension. A few weeks ago member states were quite relaxed. If you asked ‘could the Brits have a three month extension’ the answer was ‘yes’. The tone has changed. Anything more than a few weeks will come with legal and financial conditions attached.” According to other EU sources, the UK would lose the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher, meaning that it would pay the EU £13.5 billion per year rather than £9 billion. The sources also said that the UK would lose any law-making capabilities within the EU during a long extension.
Elsewhere, the head of the European Parliament (EP), Antonio Tajani, said on Saturday that “I’m convinced that the [UK’s] exit date can only be delayed by a maximum of several weeks – from the end of March to the start of July at most.” Tajani said that the UK would need to offer a clear reason for extension, such as holding elections or a second referendum, adding, “It’s a matter now of avoiding the biggest mistake of all – a chaotic Brexit without contractual arrangements in place.”
The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is preparing to make up to £20bn in funds available for extra public spending if MPs pass the Brexit deal this week. The funds include £15bn in contingency funds for No Deal, with the remainder made up from a recent upturn in tax receipts. In an interview with the Financial Times, Hammond said that a negotiated Brexit with a transition would allow him to “share the proceeds of an accumulated insurance fund.” A treasury source told the Sunday Times that if the deal is passed, “We will be in a position to spend quite a lot of money this autumn. Austerity will be well and truly over.”
Separately, the Sunday Telegraph reports that ministers are preparing to use new powers to impose price caps on medicines, after drug firms increased prices to “unwarranted levels” in preparation for a No Deal Brexit.
Elsewhere, in an article for the Mail on Sunday, US ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, writes that talk of chlorine-washed chicken entering the UK in the event of a trade deal with the US is “the EU’s way of blocking fair competition from the American poultry industry… there is absolutely nothing wrong with chlorine washes.”
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Opinion polls released over the weekend show a mixed picture on public attitudes to the Brexit deal. A ComRes survey for the Sunday Telegraph suggests 44% of the public back leaving without a deal if the EU refuses to make any further concessions, though 55% also endorsed the view that they “want Brexit to be sorted and don’t really care how.” However, private polling by Downing Street seen by the Mail on Sunday found that 58% of Leave voters agree that the Prime Minister’s deal is “not perfect” but that MPs should back it nonetheless. Elsewhere, BMG Research conducted for The Independent suggested that 52% of the public would be opposed to an extension of Article 50 lasting longer than six months.
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The Labour Party will not push for a vote on a second referendum this week, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said yesterday. Instead, Labour will focus its efforts on opposing the Brexit deal and backing an extension to Article 50. The delay is backed by the cross-party People’s Vote campaign, which reportedly fears a referendum amendment will be defeated if it is tabled too early. This comes ahead of today’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Elsewhere, the Observer reports that the Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay met last week with two Labour backbenchers, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, who are leading attempts to force a second referendum. Kyle said that Barclay had “remained loyal to Government policy” but had “fully engaged” with their proposals. The so-called ‘Kyle-Wilson plan’ would involve support for the Brexit deal on the condition it is put to a referendum with Remain on the ballot paper.
Meanwhile, the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, Ian Murray, has called on Jeremy Corbyn to sack any shadow ministers who do not vote for a referendum amendment.
Elsewhere, in an article for the Guardian, the Labour MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, argues that another referendum will only be seen as “legitimate” if the option of No Deal is included on the ballot paper.
Separately, the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said on Saturday that Labour will oppose a long extension to Article 50 if it would require the UK to take part in European Parliament elections.
In a response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for EU reform last week, the leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has warned against “European centralism,” adding, “communitising debt and Europeanising social security systems and the minimum wage would be the wrong approach.” In an op-ed for Die Welt am Sonntag, Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed instead the need for “subsidiarity and individual responsibility.”
Meanwhile, the leader of France’s centre-right Republican party, Laurent Wauquiez, has criticised Macron’s calls for greater EU integration, saying, “We must exclude new enlargement. Europe has lost its coherence and capacity for action.”
The leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, has said he will meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest “in the coming days” to resolve an ongoing dispute about Orban’s membership of the EPP. Weber said, “Orban wants to stay in the EPP. He knows that in order to do so, he has to show that he accepts our common values.” This comes ahead of a meeting later this month at which EPP members will decide whether or not to expel Orban’s Fidesz party from the centre-right EPP, amid anger over Budapest’s anti-migration campaign against the European Commission.
Separately, the former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont announced yesterday that he will run for a seat in May’s European Parliament elections, for the pro-independence Junts per Catalunya party.
In a new country-by-country guide, Open Europe’s Anna Nadibaidze examines the different positions of the EU27 on a possible Article 50 extension and the conditions member states may demand if the UK applied for one. She writes, “There is a general consensus that if the UK proposes a delay, member states will not oppose it.” She adds, “For most member states, the most important condition remains for the UK to provide clarity and guarantees that extending Article 50 will actually help Theresa May get her deal through the House of Commons.” However, she also points to differences among the EU27: “Some member states, such as Austria and Germany, have stressed that there should be no extension beyond the European Parliament (EP) elections in May… However, others, such as Luxembourg and Ireland, have suggested that if the UK provides a valid reason for extension, the obstacle of elections could be overcome.” She also notes that “there may yet be the prospect of a ‘two-pronged’ offer from the EU on extension – under which the extension would be a technical, short one of up to three months if the deal is passed by a certain date, but much longer (between 9 and 21 months) if it is not.”
Elsewhere, in a new blog, Open Europe’s Aarti Shankar looks at the changes Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has sought in negotiations with the EU, including an enhanced arbitration mechanism. She writes, “it seems [Cox] is attempting to widen the scope of scenarios which could see the UK begin arbitration proceedings to terminate the backstop – as opposed to requiring a joint UK-EU decision to end it.” Another idea is the “mini-backstop,” which would see the existing backstop “replaced by a paired-back arrangement that only covered the necessary areas to ensure an open border.” She concludes, “Ultimately, unless the EU can demonstrate it will seriously consider alternatives to the current backstop, there will be little new to ease the concerns of MPs who believe it acts as a ‘trap’.'”