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MPs voted last night for the Government’s motion to seek an extension to Article 50, by 412 votes to 202 – a majority of 210. The motion stipulated that if the House of Commons passes the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement by 20 March, the Government will seek a one-off delay to Brexit to 30 June. The motion also noted that if the House of Commons does not pass the Brexit deal before 20 March, then it is “highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length.”
This came after a cross-party amendment to the motion by Labour MP Hilary Benn was narrowly defeated by 314 votes to 312. The Benn amendment aimed for Parliament to take control of the order paper on 20th March, with a view to holding indicative votes on Brexit options thereafter. 16 Conservatives voted for the Benn amendment, against a three-line whip. A separate Labour amendment by party leader Jeremy Corbyn, which sought for “a different approach” to Brexit during an extension, was rejected by 318 votes to 302.
Another amendment by Independent Group MP Sarah Wollaston, calling for a second referendum to be held during an Article 50 extension, was defeated by 334 votes to 85. The Labour Party abstained, although 25 of their MPs voted for and 18 of their MPs voted against. Five Labour shadow frontbenchers resigned after defying instructions to abstain on the motion. The official People’s Vote campaign had also recommended an abstention, with senior official and former Labour director of communications, Alastair Campbell, warning that the amendment was being pushed at “[the] wrong time and I fear the wrong reasons.”
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that she will make a third attempt to pass the EU Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament next week. A date has not been confirmed, but it is expected that the Government will aim to move it at the start of next week, in time for Thursday’s European Council. This came as Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar yesterday said he welcomes the “vote for an extension as it reduces the likelihood of a cliff-edge, No Deal Brexit on March 29th,” adding, “But we now need to hear from London about what purpose an extension would serve and how long it would last…I think we need to be open to any request they make, listen attentively and be generous in our response.” Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said a long extension of 21 months was a “possibility,” and would give the UK a “long reflection period.”
Separately, Minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidington said, “If we are in the world of a longer extension, for this House to come to a decision, then we will be required as a condition to hold European parliamentary elections in May… We either deliver on the result of the referendum, giving people and business across the country the certainty they are calling for and move on as a nation, or we enter into a sustained period of uncertainty during which time the Government would work with this house to find a way through but which I fear would do real damage to the public’s faith in politics and trust in our democracy.”
Open Europe’s Henry Newman told BBC News yesterday, “The negotiations are basically done, and the options are narrowing,” adding, “Some Brexiteers might be realising that the Brexit they might have preferred is not on offer.” He also told Al Jazeera English, “People are shifting their positions…If [Theresa May] can manage to persuade the 10 DUP MPs, it might look like a situation where she could, with some Labour support, ultimately win [the vote].”
Newman also appeared on the Guardian Politics Weekly podcast and the HuffPost UK’s podcast.
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Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has updated his legal opinion on the Irish backstop to include a reference to the Vienna Convention, which allows for the termination of a treaty in the event of a “fundamental change of circumstances.” Although the move was designed to win over Eurosceptic MPs to the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, a group of pro-Brexit lawyers, including the Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash, argued that Cox’s advice was “badly misconceived.” They said in a statement, “Given the high burden that a state must meet to use it, and given the extreme reluctance of international courts and tribunals to accept it, [the Vienna Convention] supplies no assurance whatsoever that the UK could terminate the withdrawal agreement in a lawful manner.”
However, Cox’s updated legal advice was supported by Lord Pannick QC in a letter to The Times. The letter argued that if the UK and EU were unable to reach an agreement on the Northern Irish border in spite of “good faith negotiations” and “arbitration procedures,” and if the UK “were therefore to be faced (against its will) with a permanent backstop arrangement,” it would be “entitled to terminate the Withdrawal Agreement under Article 62 of the Vienna convention on the Law of Treaties. There would have been ‘a fundamental change of circumstances’ in relation to ‘an essential basis of the consent of the parties to be bound by the treaty.’ As a matter of law, the UK would not be bound to remain permanently in a backstop arrangement.” He added, “Whether it would be wise politically to invoke Article 62 is a different matter.”
Elsewhere, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, yesterday said, “We are working very hard with the Government to get a deal so we leave the EU with a deal. The important thing is Northern Ireland is not left behind. That we leave altogether, that we have that constitutional and economic integrity for the UK. And we have long said that Stormont should play a role in this. We wanted Stormont to have a meaningful say in Brexit and we still believe that to be the case.” Foster also told BBC Northern Ireland, “Nobody wants to leave without a deal and we want to make sure we get there.”
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An opinion poll carried out by YouGov suggests that 43% of the public is opposed to an extension of Article 50, with 38% supporting the measure. Remain and Labour voters are more likely to support an extension, while Conservative and Leave voters are more likely to oppose. The poll also revealed that if there is an extension, 47% would prefer a shorter delay of “a few weeks or months,” while 33% would prefer a “significantly longer delay, of many months or a year.”
Elsewhere, a separate poll carried out by the Conservative Home website found that 40% of Conservative Party members think that MPs should vote for the Prime Minister’s deal, twice as many as before the legal changes to the backstop were secured.
Yesterday the joint executive secretary of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, Nigel Evans, said that Prime Minister Theresa May needed to “reassert her authority” over Government, adding, “We have to have collective responsibility in government, otherwise it just simply doesn’t work.” This comes as the former Conservative minister George Freeman said that May should offer to resign in order to get her Brexit deal through Commons, adding that this would “allow a new leader to reunite the country and oversee the next stage [of the negotiations].”
Separately, Conservative MP Christopher Chope yesterday said he would “seriously consider” voting to bring down the government if the Labour Party tabled a no confidence motion. Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen also hinted that he would do so in an interview with the Today program yesterday.
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International Trade Secretary Liam Fox signed a treaty yesterday with representatives from Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which will allow for all parties to continue trading freely without any added tariffs after Brexit. It also removes all tariffs on goods imported from the two countries to the UK and will gradually eliminate 80% of tariffs on British exports to them. Fox said, “I am delighted to sign this trade continuity agreement today as it will allow businesses to keep trading as freely as they do today, even in a no deal scenario,” adding, “The agreement will also benefit thousands of people in some of the furthest reaches of the Commonwealth, with around a quarter of Fijians relying on employment through the sugar industry according to the Fiji Sugar Corporation and more than a quarter of the sugarcane they produce being exported to the UK.”
The NATO annual report released yesterday, has revealed that defence spending by NATO European members reached a five-year high last year, as measured by a proportion of GDP. Only six EU countries, specifically the UK, Poland, Greece and the three Baltic nations, met the 2% of economic output spending target on defence. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg yesterday said, “Germany has after years of cutting defence spending started to increase. I expect more, I expect [a] further increase, and Germany has promised to make an 80 percent increase from 2014 to 2024.” He also added, “The burden-sharing is not only about cash, it’s also about contributions to NATO missions. Germany is contributing to NATO in many different ways.”
In an updated version of previous analysis, Open Europe’s Anna Nadibaidze looks at the different positions of the EU27 on a possible Article 50 extension and the conditions member states may demand when the UK demands for one. She writes, “The general consensus remains that member states will not oppose a request for a delay,” adding, “For most member states, the most important condition remains for the UK to provide clarity and guarantees for extending Article 50 will actually help Theresa May get her deal through the House of Commons.” However, the EU27 have nuanced positions on what happens if the deal does not pass: “Some member states, such as Austria and Germany, have stressed that there should be no extension beyond EU elections in May, suggesting that the delay could only be a short one in any scenario. Others, such as Ireland and Portugal, have suggested that if the UK needs to reconsider its choices, they would be willing to have a longer extension of up to 21 months.” She notes, “Taken together, there is still 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 piece for the Telegraph, Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe writes that EU officials “might need to think twice before they” suggest a longer Brexit extension, as it would mean the UK participating in European elections.