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Prime Minister Theresa May wrote to Conservative MPs this weekend, saying her message to EU leaders is, “the UK wants to leave the EU as scheduled on 29 March with a guarantee that there will be no hard border in Northern Ireland, there is a majority in Parliament for a revised Withdrawal Agreement, and we need legally-binding changes to the backstop in order to secure that majority.” May added, “A failure to make the compromises necessary to reach and take through Parliament a Withdrawal Agreement which delivers on the result of the referendum will let down the people who sent us to represent them and risk the bright future that they all deserve.” May also urged her party’s MPs to “move beyond what divides us and come together behind what unites us.” This comes as the Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox will meet EU officials this week to discuss the backstop. Cox is then expected to address Parliament on Tuesday to deliver his proposals for legally-binding changes to the backstop. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will today meet EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and May is expected to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, asked about possible ways to make the backstop temporary on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said, “I don’t think it’s the mechanism that matters, it’s the objective: If you can get to a place where the potential longevity of the backstop, the potential that the backstop lasts forever, can be adequately dealt with, that’s what we’re all seeking to do.” Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab immediately responded on Twitter, “Only a treaty-level clause which confers an unconditional right on the UK to exit the backstop would work.”
This comes after leaked WhatsApp messages seen by the Sunday Times sent on Friday by Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), Steve Baker, said May’s negotiations were a “complete waste of time” and that the Government and the EU were “working together to run the clock down to force [the Government’s] deal through” with minor changes. Elsewhere, a Cabinet minister told the Sunday Times, “Unless the Prime Minister can show progress with Brussels by February 27, she will lose control of the entire process and we may lose Brexit altogether.”
Separately, the Conservative Chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, wrote in the Sunday Times, “We need to achieve a resolution: it is incumbent on all of us in Parliament to make the necessary compromises in the national interest and ensure that this country leaves the EU on March 29.” Brady added, “That means, for those of us who are determined to restore our democratic sovereignty, not playing into the hands of those who want to delay or thwart Brexit, and instead giving the Prime Minister the time and space to get the necessary changes to the backstop.”
Elsewhere, Nigel Dodds, Westminster leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, told his party conference on Saturday, “We want a Brexit deal, but we are very clear that a No Deal is better than a bad deal.” Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, “Let’s get a deal done – that’s the most important thing for me.” McDonnell added, “You would only go back to the people in extremis if can’t get a deal agreed through Parliament. Or if any deal, you thought, wasn’t going to protect jobs and the economy you would have to go back to the people – and I think that’s right.”
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Defence minister Tobias Ellwood told BBC Pienaar’s Politics yesterday, “In the event that the [European Research Group] cannot be relied upon with their votes [for the meaningful vote on 27 February], then we do need to pursue the possibility of having that free vote to take No Deal off the table.” Ellwood told BBC Radio 5 Live, “There are many ministers, me being one of them, that need to see No Deal removed from the table in due course, and that date is very much approaching.”
This comes as Labour MP Yvette Cooper, writing in the Guardian yesterday, said, “The votes last week show that the ERG will not be satisfied with any sensible plan.” Cooper added, “That is why we [a cross-party group of MPs] have published a cross-party Bill which would force the Prime Minister to take key decisions by the middle of March, rather than taking brinkmanship games right up to the line.” Cooper’s Bill would force the Government to request an extension to Article 50 by mid-March in the absence of Parliament agreeing to a deal.
Around five Labour MPs, including Chuku Umunna and Chris Leslie, are reportedly expected to leave the party today. The MPs have expressed disagreement with the party’s direction on Brexit, along with its handling of allegations of antisemitism. On the BBC’s Westminster Hour yesterday, the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock urged MPs thinking of leaving to “stay in and fight,” although he conceded “with regret” that “there will be some kind of splintering.”
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell yesterday said, “On all the issues people have raised as a reason for a split, we’re dealing with [them]. For example, on Brexit we’re holding the party together. Those saying we’ll split over a people’s vote, well, we’ve still kept that option on the table, and it might come about.” He argued that the defection of several Labour MPs to the SDP in the 1980s “basically installed Mrs. Thatcher in power for that decade. I don’t think any of the people who have even been mentioned around this [current] split would want that.”
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A Cabinet sub-committee is due to agree on the tariff programme the UK will apply in a No Deal Brexit scenario on Wednesday, while the Government will publish the programme next week, according to the Times. The paper reports that International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has argued for zero tariffs in as many fields as possible, while other ministers, such as Environment Secretary Michael Gove, have been urging for stronger protection for agricultural goods.
Elsewhere, in an interview with the Telegraph on Saturday, Fox said it was a “strange thing” for the EU to risk “economic well-being of the people of Europe” by refusing to consider “very reasonable” changes MPs have requested on the backstop. Fox said, “This is a Europe that’s got European elections… and a number of potential elections – a potential Spanish election – coming up… There comes a point where politicians have to park ideological issues and recognise the importance and dominance of real economic issues.”
Separately, aerospace company Airbus’ Senior Vice President Katherine Bennett said yesterday there is “no such thing as a managed No Deal,” adding that it would be “absolutely catastrophic” for her company. Bennett said Airbus had spent “tens of millions of euros on readiness,” including stockpiling components, assessing IT systems and reconsidering the 80,000 journeys staff make annually as part of the company’s European business.
Meanwhile, Home Secretary Sajid Javid last week wrote to EU27 Home Affairs ministers, warning them to prepare alternative arrangements for police and law enforcement cooperation after Brexit. Javid argued, “I believe we must prepare for all eventualities, including a No Deal scenario where we must be ready to operate alternative non-EU co-operation mechanisms should that become necessary.” Such alternative mechanisms could include working within international organisations such as Interpol and relying on bilateral treaties.
This comes as in a written communication last week, Germany warned it will stop the extradition of its citizens to the UK after Brexit in a No Deal scenario, as the UK will leave the European Arrest Warrant and other EU police cooperation and judicial measures.
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The Mail on Sunday has seen plans revealing a short-term fiscal stimulus package intended to support the UK manufacturing and industrial sectors in the event of a disruptive No Deal. Treasury sources told the paper that this plan, named “Project Kingfisher”, was separate from those previously announced as part of the Government’s No Deal planning. Downing Street has reportedly told Cabinet ministers and devolved executives to “engage with the Project Kingfisher process and structures as soon as they have concerns [regarding] economic disruption to specific firms or sectors.”
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Australian trade minister Simon Birmingham said yesterday, “If we face a No Deal scenario then we would be urging and encouraging the UK to negotiate and finalise an agreement as quickly as possible,” adding, “I would absolutely hope that we would conclude negotiations this year.” He added, “Australia definitely seeks a comprehensive agreement [with the UK] that is inclusive of goods as well as services.” Birmingham also said that the UK joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement between 11 Pacific nations including Australia, was unlikely in the medium term due to the UK’s location and the need to reach an agreement with TPP members.
Elsewhere, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox have sent a letter to Japan, urging them to be flexible in the UK-Japan trade talks that have been ongoing for 18 months. Reportedly the letter said that “time is of the essence.” Japanese officials have reacted with frustration and are said to have considered canceling this week’s meetings as a response, according to the Financial Times. The UK Department for International Trade said, “We are continuing discussions with Japan on opportunities for a strong future trading relationship. The Prime Ministers of Japan and the UK have already agreed to secure an ambitious agreement as soon as possible, building on the deal already agreed between Japan and the EU.”
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Elsewhere, leader of the Five Star Star Movement and Italian deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, on Friday launched a new group in the European Parliament that would aim to “put together a different Europe.” The group purports to “attract movements that don’t feel part of right-wing nationalist parties nor of traditional parties that have been part of the EU Parliament for 20 years”, according to a pamphlet given at a press conference. The group is joined by Croatian Zivi Zid (Human Shield), Finnish liberal party Liike Nyt, Greek party AKKEL (the Agricultural Livestock Party), and Polish far-right party Kukiz’15. The Five Star Movement was previously part of the parliamentary group called the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).