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The Government yesterday won a vote of confidence by 325 votes to 306, with the support of DUP MPs. Following the vote, Prime Minister Theresa May invited the leaders of the opposition parties to meet with her to “identify a way forward [on Brexit] that can secure the backing of the House.” However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “Before there can be any positive discussion about the way forward, the Government must remove clearly, once and for all, the prospect of… a No Deal exit from the EU.” May held her first meeting yesterday evening with the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cymru, and said she was “disappointed that the leader of the Labour party has not so far chosen to take part, but our door remains open.”
Speaking elsewhere, May said of the possibility of extending Article 50, “The Government’s policy is that we are leaving the European Union on the 29th of March. But the EU would only extend Article 50 if actually it was clear there was a plan that was moving towards an agreed deal.” This came after the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, told the BBC yesterday, “We’re clear we won’t be delaying Article 50, we won’t be revoking it…What we need to do is to find a way that [the Brexit] deal or some part of it or an alternative deal that is negotiable can then be put to the European Union.”
Separately, a Downing Street spokesperson yesterday ruled out the possibility of being in a customs union with the EU, saying, “The principles that govern us as we go into these talks is that we want to be able to do our own trade deals, and that is incompatible with a customs union.” The Times reports that the Cabinet Office Minister, David Lidington, will lead cross-party Brexit talks on behalf of the Government.
Open Europe’s Henry Newman told BBC News, “This was a decisive vote for [the Prime Minister] and Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy of calling this vote actually backfired… Which leads to the question of what is Labour’s policy on Brexit,” adding, “If Corbyn backs a second referendum Theresa May can present herself as the only party leader backing Brexit, which puts her into a much better position than she was yesterday.” Open Europe’s David Shiels told BBC Radio Ulster Evening Extra programme, “There are not many options for [May] except starting cross-party talks,” adding, “The survival of the government depends on the support of the DUP and there is no clear alternative option that could command the support of the House.”
BBC The Guardian The Telegraph Financial Times The Guardian The Times Henry Newman: Twitter BBC Radio Ulster
The Telegraph reports on a Treasury conference call, leaked yesterday, in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, told business leaders of 330 firms that a No Deal Brexit could be taken “off the table” and possibly lead to Article 50 being “rescinded” within a matter of days. Hammond was explaining how a No Deal scenario could be prevented by next week’s backbench Bill. He suggested that the bill could force the Government to extend Article 50 and act as the “ultimate backstop” against a No Deal Brexit, as a “large majority in the Commons is opposed to No Deal under any circumstances.”
In a report published yesterday, the House of Commons Exiting the European Union committee has called for a “series of indicative votes” in parliament to identify a way forward that would be supported by a majority of MPs. The report states, “The most important question to be considered by the House in generations cannot be determined simply by the running down of the clock. This would lead either to a default exit with no deal, or to the House being offered a Hobson’s choice of the deal currently on offer or no deal. If Parliament cannot reach a view in time, then the House should be able to express its opinion on extending Article 50.”
Elsewhere, 71 Labour MPs signed a letter yesterday calling for another referendum on Brexit.
Exiting the European Union Committee
The Electoral Commission is in the process of devising contingency plans to hold a second Brexit referendum and to participate in the upcoming European parliament elections if Brexit is postponed. A spokesperson for the body said, “As part of our contingency planning, we are making certain preparations that will enable us to swiftly take the necessary action should circumstances change and these elections need to be held.”
Elsewhere, the Times reports that EU officials are looking at the possibility to extend the Brexit process until 2020. A European source is quoted as saying, “There is work going on to see how Article 50 can be extended beyond the European elections. Any extension can only be a one-off so after the defeat it looks sensible to go for a longer period.” The paper also quotes a document with legal advice which states that UK MEPs would be allowed to stay in the European Parliament without elections.
Meanwhile, a French government source is quoted in Le Monde saying, “An extension of Article 50 would be examined by Europeans if it is accompanied by a plan, a strategy.”
The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, yesterday told the Treasury Select Committee, “The markets and the country are looking to parliament for direction” after MPs voted down the Brexit deal earlier this week, adding that “one would expect continued volatility.” Carney also noted that the rise in the pound following MPs’ vote was caused by markets predicting a lower chance of the UK exiting the EU without a deal.
Elsewhere, the Financial Times reports that senior figures in the City of London are calling for the UK to seek an extension to the Article 50 exit process.
German business newspaper Handelsblatt reported yesterday that Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries are willing to make further concessions on the backstop if Ireland supports them. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday restated the Irish Government’s commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, adding, “What is required is for Britain to essentially decide what kind of Brexit it wants.” Elsewhere, the Belfast Telegraph reports that, following a press briefing, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was accidentally overheard saying that there could be a need for customs checks on goods travelling from the UK to the Republic of Ireland in the event of a No Deal Brexit.
This comes as the spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday said that the German government would address questions about extending the Brexit deadline when the UK government states what it will be doing next. Meanwhile, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that Austria would endorse extending time for Brexit negotiations to avoid a No Deal scenario, though he underlined that the current deal would not be renegotiated.
Meanwhile, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier yesterday said, “When parliament needs more time, then this is something that will have to be considered by the European Council, and personally I would see that as a reasonable request.” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will meet with ministers this morning with the purpose to study a possible “acceleration for administrations to be ready in case of a No Deal withdrawal of the UK.”
The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, won a parliamentary vote of confidence yesterday following a dispute over the name change of Macedonia. Tsipras won 151 votes in the 300 seat chamber, in which his left-wing Syriza party holds 145 seats. Tsipras had called the vote himself after his junior coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks, quit the government over Tsipras’ deal with Macedonia, under which the Balkan country will be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia.
In an article for The Guardian, Open Europe’s Henry Newman asks, “Having given the prime minister another political bloody nose, are her colleagues on the hunt for compromises or is the opposition within her Conservative party basically implacable?” He argues, “Some of the opposition to the prime minister’s deal is, frankly, based on personal or political problems rather than the policy of what she’s actually agreed with the EU.” Newman adds, “May remains in a parlous position. A harder Brexit is not on offer from Brussels, and so any significant move in that direction would mean no deal. Shifting to a softer Brexit would alienate more of her own backbenchers. Although wounded, she is not yet politically finished, but she is fast running out of options. At some point, she may decide that she has one significant card left – committing to relinquish the party leadership after the end of article 50 to allow a new generation to lead the next stage of negotiations.”
Elsewhere, in a new blog, Open Europe’s Anna Nadibaidze, Zoe Alipranti and Pieter Cleppe examine the reactions of European politicians and press to the Government’s defeat over the Withdrawal Agreement. Immediately after the vote, politicians and officials from the European Union and EU27 member states issued reactions, mostly expressing their regret, but also confirming that the ball is now in the UK’s court to come up with a solution for the steps ahead. Meanwhile, the press was overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future of Brexit and the uncertainty ahead.