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The Labour MPs Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Ann Coffey and Mike Gapes yesterday quit the party in order to form ‘The Independent Group’ of Members of Parliament. At a press conference announcing the decision, the MPs cited disagreement with the Labour party leadership, including its stance on Brexit and its handling of antisemitism allegations. All seven are also supporters of a second referendum. A statement on the group’s website said, “Each of us has dedicated decades to the progressive values that were once held true by Labour, values which have since been abandoned by today’s Labour Party… Sitting as the Independent Group of MPs we appeal to colleagues from all parties to consider the best interests of the country above short-term party-political considerations and choose to do likewise.”
The Times reports this morning that another 20 MPs could resign from the party, while Labour’s Lord Harris of Haringey warned a parliamentary meeting yesterday that several Labour peers could join the new group.
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn commented, “I am disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.” Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said of the MPs that “the honourable thing, the usual thing for them to do now, is for them to stand down and fight by-elections back in their constituencies.”
The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Vince Cable, tweeted his support for the seven MPs, saying, “The Liberal Democrats are open to working with like-minded groups and individuals in order to give the people the final say on Brexit, with the option to remain in the EU. We will be engaging in talks to progress both that campaign and a wider political agenda.”
Meanwhile, the BBC reports that one Conservative minister and up to four Conservative backbenchers are considering defecting to the Independent Group. The minister reportedly said that he would join the group if the Government decided to push for a No Deal Brexit.
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Ireland’s deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, has said that the EU would be “open” to proposals on Brexit put forward by the UK Labour Party, but added that “the onus has to be on London” to come forward with such proposals. Speaking after a meeting with EU Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels yesterday, Coveney said that Labour’s proposals “could deal with the concerns around the backstop ever being used,” but ruled out “key-hole surgery” on the Withdrawal Agreement, and said Ireland would oppose a time-limit or a unilateral exit mechanism on the backstop. He added that responsibility for solving the problem of the backstop lies “in London, not Dublin,” but said the EU side was open to finding ways of “giving clarity and reassurance” to the UK Prime Minister, to help her sell the Brexit deal in Parliament.
Meanwhile, Dutch Foreign Minister Stefan Blok yesterday said, “The Withdrawal Agreement is result of such long negotiations that I don’t think there will be any room for amendments,” adding, “The political declaration might offer space for this. We need clarity from the UK about what amendments would help them, then we have to decide if they are acceptable to the EU.”
Elsewhere, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung yesterday that “Nobody in Europe would oppose a demand for an extension of [Brexit] talks.” He added that “it would make sense for Brexit to take place at the latest before the first sitting week of the new European Parliament at the beginning of July.” Juncker also said that he found it hard to imagine that the British would vote in the European elections again, though he could not rule out that prospect.
This comes as Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will go to Brussels tomorrow to present new proposals on the Irish backstop.
Japanese car manufacturer Honda has announced the closure of its factory in Swindon in 2022. Sources at Honda told Sky News that that the uncertainty over its access to EU markets after Brexit was one of several factors behind the move, which could lead to 3,500 job losses. However, the Conservative MP for North Swindon, Justin Tomlinson, said that Honda had been “clear” that “this is based on global trends and not Brexit as all European market production will consolidate in Japan in 2021.” Union leaders described the decision as a “shattering body blow at the heart of UK manufacturing.”
The EU yesterday issued a warning to small businesses trading in the bloc that a No Deal Brexit would mean greater bureaucracy and costs, and that preparation for such a scenario was vital. The European Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, said that checks on goods moving between the EU and the UK in the event of No Deal were “key to protecting our consumers and our internal market,” adding, “A lot depends on the ability of businesses trading with the UK to get up to speed with the customs rules that will apply on day one in case of No Deal.” This comes as European derivatives traders have been granted temporary permission to use financial clearing houses based in the UK in the event of a No Deal Brexit.
Elsewhere, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, yesterday warned of a large hike in food prices in the event of a No Deal Brexit. Speaking in Australia, Hogan also said that in the future the UK would struggle to achieve free trade deals with other countries which matched those struck by the EU, saying, “Five hundred million customers [in the EU] will always resonate more with a third country when they want to do a trade deal… rather than 65m [in the UK].”
Separately, four Cabinet ministers – Business Secretary Greg Clark, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Justice Secretary David Gauke and Scotland Secretary David Mundell – reportedly met Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday to urge her to formally reject using No Deal as a negotiating tactic and to commit to an extension of Article 50 if no agreement is reached.
Meanwhile, the Wales Audit Office has warned in a report that parts of the Welsh public sector have made too few preparations for a No Deal Brexit. The report suggests that councils are especially unprepared and should make contingency plans for disruption in food supplies, which could affect hospitals and schools in particular. The auditor general Adrian Crompton said, “Inevitably I think in some parts of the public sector there has been some reticence to commit resources when uncertainty still existed,” adding, “But I can give assurance that the public sector in Wales is heavily focused on preparing for that eventuality and for managing the implications as best they can.”
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A new survey by the European Parliament published yesterday suggests that the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) will remain the largest parliamentary group after the European elections in May. The group is projected to win 183 of the parliament’s 705 seats (26%), down from the 29% it currently holds, whilst the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) would see a decrease of its share from 25% to 19%. The survey also suggested that the populist Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), would see their combined seat share rise from 10% to 14%.
Tensions have emerged between the United States and Germany after US President Donald Trump suggested on Sunday that he was prepared to impose tariffs on car imports from Europe. European Commission spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, said yesterday that the Commission “would react in a swift and adequate manner” in the event that tariffs were introduced. This comes as the BDI, the main German business lobby organisation, said that “there is no way that car imports endanger the US’s national security” and asked Trump “to stick to the current laws of trade.”
In his column for ConservativeHome, Open Europe’s Director Henry Newman writes, “Yesterday, the landscape of Westminster’s body politic began to shift. But it’s not yet clear whether the defection of so-called ‘Gang of Seven’ MPs from the Labour Party to a new Independent Group marks a movement of Westminster’s tectonic plates or something relatively discreet.” He adds, “We also don’t yet know whether the new group will coalesce into a new challenger political party, or remain a loose alliance.” On the consequences for Brexit, Newman observes, “All seven MPs already oppose the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and back a so-called ‘people’s vote’. They have already been behaving as part of an internal opposition within Labour. So their defections will not inherently alter the maths in Parliament.” He adds, however, that the defection could strengthen the case within Labour for a shift towards a second referendum, “to avoid a rebellion developing further.” Moreover, he suggests that it is “hard to rule out” some Conservative MPs also defecting to join the new group, which “could badly weaken the ability of the Government to deliver its business through the Commons.” Newman concludes, “Meanwhile, the political uncertainty over Brexit continues with just days remaining of Article 50… The sooner the Government can deliver clarity over when and how we will leave the EU the better.”
Elsewhere, in a new blog, Open Europe’s Marcus Cadier assesses the prospects for Swedish Euroscepticism. He argues, “While most major parties in Sweden argue in favour of a closer relationship with the EU, there is a lack of clarity as to what would constitute such a relationship. There may be tensions in the future between the desire for deeper EU cooperation and the negativity of Swedes on the current direction of the EU and their opposition to being part of the Eurozone. But this does not necessarily translate into a desire for ‘Swexit’.” He adds, “If the direction and future EU-Swedish relationship is not taken seriously, this ‘soft Euroscepticism’ in Sweden may translate into ‘harder Euroscepticism’. There is a need for a constructive case for reform.”