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The House of Commons yesterday passed an amendment by 308 votes to 297 obliging the Government to present an alternative plan within three sitting days if the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal is rejected by Parliament on 15 January. The Speaker, John Bercow, selected the amendment, tabled by Conservative MP and former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, after a consultation with the Commons clerk, despite many MPs claiming the amendment was “not selectable.”
The House of Commons Leader, Andrea Leadsom, called the Speaker’s actions “extremely concerning,” adding that they set “a very damaging precedent” since “instead of being the guardian of the rules, [he] decided to unilaterally change the rules.” Several Conservative Brexiteers submitted an Early Day Motion demanding the publication of the legal advice Bercow received from the Commons clerk. However, Bercow refused to publish the advice, arguing that in selecting the amendment he was “not setting himself up against the government but championing the rights of the House of Commons.”
Elsewhere, speaking in the Commons yesterday, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer suggested that Labour might be willing to work on a cross-party basis to support a customs union and single market deal, saying, “Obviously, at some stage, if we are to leave other than without a deal there has to be a consensus in this House for something.” According to The Times, Starmer told Conservative MP Ken Clarke that Labour would begin cross-party talks “in the right spirit” if the Prime Minister’s deal was rejected. The Times also reports that Starmer has warned Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn that a second referendum might be the only means of preventing a No Deal exit.
Separately, EU27 ambassadors met yesterday to discuss preparations for the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement by the European Parliament, with an EU diplomat telling the Daily Telegraph, “We are working to make sure that the Brexit agreement is ready to go to MEPs the day after the Brexit deal gets through Westminster…If it gets through.” A Downing Street spokesperson said the Government would “seek to provide certainty, quickly” if the Prime Minister’s deal is defeated next week.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday said it was important to avoid a No Deal Brexit and to “see the influence of Brexit to the global economy minimised,” adding, “We will continue to work closely with [Prime Minister] Theresa May to help in whatever way we can in the run-up to the [parliamentary] vote.” This comes as May will meet Abe today. Ahead of the meeting May said, “As the UK prepares to leave the EU, we raise our horizons towards the rest of the world. Our relationship with Japan is stronger than ever, and this visit will enhance co-operation in a wide range of areas.”
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The Government yesterday published a paper on Northern Ireland, setting out “additional unilateral commitments” to address Unionist concerns about the operation of the backstop. The proposals include a “strong role for the Northern Ireland Assembly” before the backstop provisions are given effect in domestic law, while the Government pledges to seek the agreement of the Assembly before the UK would consent to adding “new areas of law applying specifically to Northern Ireland to the [backstop] Protocol.” The paper also envisages a role for the Stormont Executive through representation on the Joint Committee and Specialised Committee established by the Withdrawal Agreement. The Government has reaffirmed its commitment that there would be “no divergence in practice” between the rules in Great Britain and Northern Ireland for as long as the backstop was in place.
Meanwhile, the DUP issued a statement yesterday reaffirming its opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement. Nigel Dodds, the party’s Westminster leader, said that “We reject the backstop and have previously, and consistently, indicated we will not support an internationally legally binding withdrawal agreement that contains its provisions.” Referring to the Government’s paper, he added that “The Assembly would not be able to override UK international legal obligations as the backstop provisions would be in the treaty.”
Elsewhere, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald accused the DUP of playing a “reckless game” in supporting Brexit, adding, “The Withdrawal Agreement and the Backstop are the least worst options in the disaster that is Brexit. These cannot, and will not, be rewritten, renegotiated or vetoed by Westminster or the Assembly.” It comes as McDonald and Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill held a meeting with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels yesterday.
This comes as Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday told the House of Commons that “further clarification on the backstop is possible, and those talks will continue over the next few days,” adding, “We’ve also been looking at how parliament can take a greater role as we take negotiations on to the next stage…In the event that our future relationship [with the EU] or alternative arrangements are not ready by the end of 2020, parliament will have a vote on whether to seek to extend the implementation period, or bring the backstop into effect.”
Speaking in Ethiopia last night, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said, “I don’t think we could have a situation whereby the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly had a veto power because that would essentially give one of the two communities a veto power over the other and that would create a difficulty.”
Writing in Politico, Business Secretary Greg Clark warns, “In recent weeks, confidence [in the UK] from investors has been shaken,” adding, “Hundreds of millions of pounds are having to be diverted by companies from productive investments into defending themselves against the risk of a no-deal exit from the European Union.” He urges parliament to come to a decision this month on “how we will act together as a nation and give confidence to business,” adding, “It is not sufficient to record a disapproval of no deal — a further step would need to be taken to prevent it happening by default.” He also argues, “Business has been quite clear that it prefers the certainty of a good deal to an extended debate about the terms of Brexit. It wants the deal to pass.”
Business leaders from a variety of industry groups, including the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the Freight Transport Association (FTA), have called for emergency government measures to be implemented in the event of a No Deal Brexit. The FSB has recommended an extension to the Article 50 deadline to avoid a No Deal scenario, while the FTA has called for an expansion of permits for lorry drivers and an “approved exporter system” to prevent delays at ports. The FTA’s head of European Policy and Brexit, Pauline Bastidon, said that “clear direction and a supportive environment” from the Government were necessary to avoid large-scale disruption.
This comes as the boss of the port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, criticised the UK Department for Transport’s plans to pursue alternative ferry routes in the event of a No Deal Brexit. Speaking on Radio 4 yesterday, Puissesseau claimed that “There will not be any delay” under a No Deal scenario, and that “The trucks will be passing as they are doing today.”
Recent ONS figures have shown that UK productivity growth fell to 0.2%, a two-year low, in the third quarter of last year. This was down from 1.6% in the second quarter. A senior economist at the Institute of Directors said that the “uncertainty hitting business investment and limiting policy headway” was likely to keep productivity low.
Jaguar Land Rover will today announce plans to cut up to 5000 jobs in the UK as part of a cost-cutting initiative. This comes after the company was hit by a downturn in sales in China amid trade tensions; a fall in sales of diesel cars; and increased uncertainty about UK post-Brexit competitiveness.
Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and leader of the right-wing Lega Party, Matteo Salvini, yesterday met with senior Polish politicians, including the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to discuss the prospect of forming a Eurosceptic alliance ahead of the European Elections in May. Commenting on the meeting, Salvini said, “Poland and Italy will be part of the new spring of Europe, the renaissance of European values,” adding, “The Europe that will come to form in June will lead us all, rather than the one that exists today and is run by bureaucrats.”
This comes as the leader of the French far-right party Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, told the Dutch newspaper NRC that she no longer supports a French exit from the EU. She said that France could “radically change the EU, from the inside,” adding that she wanted to turn the “supranational EU, which resembles a prison” into an “alliance of nations.”
Elsewhere, commenting on the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s decision to welcome part of the 49 migrants stranded on boats off the Maltese coast, Salvini said, “I am and will remain absolutely against new arrivals in Italy… Giving in to the pressures and threats of Europe and NGOs is a sign of weakness.” This comes as Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy and Malta all reached an agreement yesterday to welcome some of the migrants awaiting disembarkation, in addition to 249 migrants already rescued by Malta.
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