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The House of Commons will today vote on a Government motion which states that “discussions between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop are ongoing.” The motion asks MPs to “reiterate” their “support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January.” On this date, the House approved an amendment tabled by Conservative MP Graham Brady requiring “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, as well as a non-binding amendment tabled by Dame Caroline Spelman, which opposes a No Deal Brexit scenario.
Many members of the Conservative European Research Group (ERG) are thought to be unlikely to vote in favour of the motion, with ERG Vice Chair Mark Francois explaining, “We cannot vote for this as it’s currently configured because it rules out No Deal and removes our negotiating leverage in Brussels.” Francois added, “The Prime Minister, if she went through the lobbies for this tomorrow night, would be voting against the guarantees she has given in the Commons for months [that No Deal remains an option].” A Downing Street spokesperson commented, “What the motion reflects is the position the Prime Minister set out after those votes, which is the Parliament wants the UK to leave with a deal, but in order to do so it requires us to secure legally-binding changes in relation to the backstop.” Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay yesterday said that the Government has not ruled out a No Deal scenario.
Elsewhere, asked about reports that she would present MPs with a choice between the Withdrawal Agreement and an Article 50 extension, Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday told the Commons, “It is very clear the Government’s position is the same. We triggered Article 50 that had a two-year time limit, that ends on the 29 March,” adding, “We want to leave with a deal, and that’s what we are working for.”
Separately, Open Europe’s Henry Newman appeared on ITV’s Peston Show, saying that the two ways to remove the chance of a No Deal Brexit are either voting for May’s Deal, which he described as the most likely scenario, or revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit, which he said there is no majority for. He also added that if Parliament forces the Prime Minister to ask for an Article 50 extension, this could lead to a long delay and more discussions on fishing and Gibraltar.
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The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said yesterday that he expects the UK will leave the EU at the end of March but the “only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and protect the Good Friday Agreement is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.” Speaking at an event in Dublin, Varadkar also said that the need to protect the peace process and prevent a hard border was “something much more important than money and jobs.” At the same event, the Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Philip Lane, said that a No Deal Brexit would have a “very severe” impact on Ireland and “would be immediately disruptive across the whole economy.” Lane added, “The agri-food sector would be disproportionately affected, with a corresponding outsized impact on rural regions, especially near the border.”
It comes as former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, told the Exiting the EU Committee yesterday that a No Deal Brexit would be “devastating” for “small indigenous farmers and small employers.” Ahern said there is “no possibility” that the EU or Ireland would agree to a time-limited backstop, but suggested it would be “possible” during the transition period “to work out an arrangement that means the backstop isn’t necessary.” Ahern also said that holding a border poll (referendum) on Irish unity would be “irresponsible” in the context of Brexit, adding “Until the institutions in Northern Ireland are set up again and functioning for a prolonged period… it would be the wrong thing to do.”
Elsewhere, the Scottish government’s chief economist, Gary Gillespie, yesterday said that a No Deal Brexit would mean a “major dislocation” for the Scottish economy. In a State of the Economy report, Gillespie warned about disruptions to trade and investment caused by No Deal that would mean a “significant structural change in the economy.”
Separately, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, described the UK as a more diminished country compared to what it was two or three years ago” and warned that No Deal risked “insurmountable” consequences for the UK economy.
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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is reportedly facing frontbench resignations if he does not attempt to force a referendum on the Brexit deal by the end of the month. Several junior shadow ministers have told the Guardian that if Corbyn fails to whip his MPs for a pro-referendum amendment to the meaningful vote, they will resign.
This comes as Labour backbenchers Phil Wilson and Peter Kyle are reportedly preparing an amendment under which parliament’s endorsement of a Brexit deal would be made subject to a public vote. Another Labour MP, Geraint Davies, has already tabled a referendum amendment to the Government’s motion today, with the options to either accept the Withdrawal Agreement or remain in the EU; however, this is not connected to the Kyle-Wilson amendment, and has been described as “premature” by other Labour MPs. Kyle said, “The main push for this will be the meaningful vote. Clearly the landscape changes but this vote tomorrow is not binding and this amendment should not be interpreted as the main bid for support.”
Switzerland has announced that it will offer a maximum of 3,500 work permits for UK citizens in the event of a No Deal Brexit. The quota, which will run from 30 March to 31 December of this year, comes as part of a new trade agreement signed between the UK and Switzerland on Monday.
Elsewhere, the American carmaker Ford has warned that a No Deal Brexit would be “catastrophic for the UK auto industry and Ford’s manufacturing operations in the country.” The statement by Ford followed reports in the Times that it is preparing to move production out of the UK, although it declined to comment on this.
Meanwhile, the head of Airbus Defence & Space Dirk Hoke warned that a No Deal without a clear agreement on security would end the prospects for the UK being part of developing Franco-German next-generation fighter jets. He said, “I consider it extremely dangerous to develop a system like FCAS (the Franco-German fighter programme) without the British,” adding, “In Britain’s case, we have to wait to see if there will be a hard Brexit … That would be fatal for the cooperation.”
A group of former British ambassadors and high commissioners have written to the Prime Minister urging her to delay the UK’s departure from the European Union. The signatories of the letter, including former permanent representative to the EU Sir Nigel Sheinwald, described Brexit as a “national crisis,” adding, “As former diplomats who have served around the world we have a clear understanding of what contributes to Britain’s influence in the world. Our advice to Theresa May today is clear: we should not leave the EU when we have no clarity about our final destination. Instead we must use the mechanisms at our disposal, above all we must seek to extend the article 50 negotiating period.” The letter also argues, “There is now, in addition to extending article 50, a powerful argument to go back to the people and ask them whether they want the negotiated Brexit deal or would prefer to stay in the European Union.”
Yesterday the European Parliament approved a free trade agreement between the EU and Singapore. It is the first bilateral trade agreement between the EU and a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The deal will remove virtually all tariffs between the EU and Singapore by 2024 and will allow for free trade within services such as retail banking. It also includes commitments on labour rights and environmental security.
In a new piece for ConservativeHome, Open Europe’s David Shiels looks at the question of a border poll on Irish unity, which was reported at Cabinet last week. He writes, “Rightly or wrongly, there is a sense that by talking up the prospects of a No Deal border poll, the Government is feeding into a narrative set by Sinn Fein.” He argues that, despite recent conversations about Irish unity, “there are no convincing signs that a change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is imminent,” and concludes, “Raising the question is not only counterproductive in terms of bringing the DUP onside, but also adds another element of uncertainty to the current debate in Northern Ireland.”