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The Government yesterday lost a vote on its Brexit strategy by 303 votes to 258, after 64 Conservative MPs abstained and 5 voted against. Ministers had moved a neutral motion asking the House to approve “the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019,” included searching for an alternative to the Irish backstop and attempting to avoid a No Deal outcome. Downing Street had earlier described the motion as “anodyne”, warning that rebelling against it could worsen the Prime Minister’s negotiating position. However, a number of members of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative Brexiteers refused to support the motion, arguing it implied opposition to a No Deal Brexit. Conservative supporters of a second referendum also abstained.
Earlier, two amendments to the main motion by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford were also defeated in the House of Commons. The Corbyn amendment called on the Government to either hold another Meaningful Vote by 27 February or make a written statement declaring that there is no longer a deal with the EU; it was defeated by 322 votes to 306. The Blackford amendment, which called for a three-month extension to Article 50, was defeated 315-93; 41 Labour MPs defied their whip to vote for it, with the rest of the party abstaining. This came after Conservative MP Anna Soubry pulled her amendment, which had called for the Government to release its recent research into the implications of No Deal.
Moderate Conservative MPs and several ministers reacted angrily to the ERG’s abstention. Richard Harrington, a business minister, said, “The Prime Minister has done a pretty good job of standing up to [the ERG] up till now, but they were drinking champagne to celebrate her losing her deal and I regard that as being treachery.” Another minister quoted by The Guardian said, “There is a degree of wishful thinking going on that the EU can ever do enough to satisfy the Brexit extremists,” adding, “[May] is worried about splitting the party but the party could split either way. She should be worried about [the moderate] side of the party.” The MP Nick Boles tweeted, “Maybe, just maybe, the penny will now drop with Prime Minister and her chief whip that the hardliners in the ERG want a no-deal Brexit and will stop at nothing to get it.”
Meanwhile, the Government is expected to soften its demands regarding reopening the Irish backstop, according to the Times. The Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, reportedly told the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, that the Government could accept legal guarantees to the backstop without reopening the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement during talks earlier this week.
The Guardian I The Guardian II The Times I The Guardian II BBC The Times II
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is set to hold talks in Brussels with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and other senior EU officials next week, according to EU sources. Corbyn is expected to offer further details on his recent offer of conditional support for the Brexit deal and give updates on cross-party talks. He will also meet with European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt and senior figures in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group of MEPs.
Elsewhere, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, has told a committee in the Irish Parliament that the Irish Government is stepping up No Deal Brexit planning. The emergency legislation prepared for a No Deal Brexit will be published in full on 22 February.
A group of EU countries led by France are considering a nine month extension to the Article 50 process, the Daily Express reports. According to an EU diplomat familiar with the Brexit negotiations, France has broken away from the prevailing view in Brussels that any extension should only be for three months, in order to avoid difficulties with May’s European Parliament elections. The diplomat said that French President Emmanuel Macron wanted to “kick the Brexit can down a long road because of his problematic domestic situation.”
The Daily Express
The UK’s antitrust regulator has warned that a No Deal Brexit will “heavily constrain” its ability to investigate price-fixing and other market failures in the next financial year. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which will take over responsibilities from EU authorities once the UK leaves, said that without a transition period, “We will need to take tough decisions on our domestic casework priorities, at pace, to be flexible to our new circumstances. We are obliged by statute to investigate all State aid and qualifying mergers that raise competition concerns. In this scenario, our discretion to carry out other work, such as market studies and further enforcement, will therefore narrow considerably.”
A group of senior politicians from Croatia and Slovenia have issued a petition demanding the resignation of the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. This comes after comments Tajani made on Sunday at a commemoration of a World War II massacre on the Italy-Slovenia border, during which he referred to “Italian Istria” and “Italian Dalmatia.” Istria and Dalmatia include parts of present-day Slovenia and Croatia. The petition, which accuses Tajani of “expressing fascist, irredentist tendencies,” has been signed by four former Presidents or Prime Ministers of Slovenia and Croatia, as well as the Major of Ljubljana and a number of senior MPs and MEPs from the two countries.
Separately, in a new book published yesterday, the former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi claims that EU foreign affairs representatives past and present have “not lived up to the expectations and the role that Europe should play,” adding that current EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini’s impact “has unfortunately been close to zero on almost all the most important dossiers.” Renzi added, “It would be desirable if a leading figure such as [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel … could continue to serve Europe in another capacity. Merkel could certainly be a suitable person to lead foreign policy, but also to be the president of the European Council.”
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In a piece for The Times, Open Europe’s Henry Newman writes, “With Eurosceptic MPs abstaining on yesterday’s vote, Theresa May was defeated by her own backbenchers. This sends the worst possible message to Brussels, which is anyway deeply reluctant to move on the backstop.” He adds, “Nothing much will move now until later in the month when the prime minister’s deal will be brought back to the Commons,” when MPs “will attempt to force an amendment which would oblige the prime minister to beg Brussels to postpone our exit,” potentially leading to “a very long delay to Brexit.” He also states that if the Government “holds off those attempts by MPs to wrestle control, the choice will narrow to a binary no-deal or deal” and May “would stand some chance of getting decent improvements to her agreement at the European Council meeting in late March.” Newman concludes that “some moderate Labour MPs [would then] back the deal, but “it’s too soon to tell” whether this would get a deal over the line, since this also “depends on how much Brussels is willing to move on the backstop.”