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The Prime Minister, Theresa May, will today give Parliament an update on recent Brexit negotiations. She will ask MPs to give her more time to renegotiate the Brexit deal, and is expected to say that now is a “crucial time” in talks with the EU and that “we all need to hold our nerve.” The update has been moved forward from Wednesday to today to “give Parliament a couple of days to digest the content” ahead of Thursday’s amendable motion on the Government’s next steps, May’s official spokesman said. The Telegraph reports that the cross-party group of MPs led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Nick Boles will not be tabling another amendment to force the Prime Minister to extend Article 50 this week, and will instead wait until a new amendable motion is tabled at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, said in Dublin yesterday, “There is a majority for a close economic relationship if you are prepared to try to find it, and I [say] we should test that by having a vote on the customs union.” The Labour MP Lisa Nandy said yesterday that between 40 and 60 other Labour MPs were “actively looking for ways to support” a revised Brexit agreement.
Elsewhere, commenting on Labour’s customs union policy in Bern, Switzerland yesterday, the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said, “It is very clear from the European Union that non-EU members do not have a say in EU trade policy so to pretend that you could do so is a dangerous delusion.” Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom yesterday said there was “no chance” of May accepting the Labour party’s version of Brexit. A spokesperson for Theresa May said, “We are absolutely clear on this: we’re not considering Jeremy Corbyn’s customs proposals; we’re not considering any proposals to remain in the customs union. We must have our own, independent trade policy.” Elsewhere, the Prisons Minister Rory Stewart told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme yesterday that while the Government did not support Labour’s customs union proposals, the two parties were “not a million miles away” from each other on other issues such as workers’ rights.
This comes as Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay held discussions with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday. Barnier said the talks were “constructive,” adding, “It is clear from our side that we are not going to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, but we will continue our discussion in the coming days.” Earlier yesterday Barnier said in relation to the negotiations on the Irish backstop, “Something has to give on the British side,” adding, “We’re waiting for clarity and movement from the United Kingdom.”
Barclay and the Minister for Cabinet Office, David Lidington, will be meeting the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group and senior MEPs in Strasbourg today. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is holding Brexit talks with French ministers today in Paris.
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EU deputy chief Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand, said yesterday that the chances of reversing Brexit were “non-existent” as there is no majority in the House of Commons in support of a second referendum. Speaking at the launch event of the Munich Security Conference, Weyand added that the campaign for another vote would not be successful unless it “presented Europe as it is and not as a fantasy.”
Weyand also said yesterday, “When it comes to foreign and security policy the impacts of Brexit are limited,” adding, “In the exchange of secret service information, Great Britain is a lot less active than Germany and France…That is because cooperation on security takes place outside EU structures.” This comes as the Munich Security Report, published yesterday, warns “that Brexit proceedings will continue to inflict wounds on both sides of the Channel for years to come.”
Separately, Richard Martin, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on Brexit planning, has warned of the consequences of losing access to EU sharing systems in the event of No Deal. In particular, he said that it would take much longer to investigate criminals who have committed crimes abroad and subsequently been arrested in the UK. Martin noted that instead of information being shared in two days as now, it would take more than two months to check the criminal records of a suspect with European counterparts, during which time the suspect could abscond. Martin said, “If we don’t get information back from our EU partners in a timely fashion, there’s a real risk [of a suspect absconding]. If they know they are likely to be incarcerated or charged, that’s a very real possibility.”
Munich Security Conference
The former Irish Taoiseach, John Bruton, has said that a No Deal Brexit is “much more likely” than previously thought and that the EU “cannot afford to break its own rules if it wants to maintain its moral and political authority.” Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Bruton argues that a majority of people in Northern Ireland might be prepared to support a united Ireland in the event of a No Deal Brexit. He adds, “By backing Brexit at all costs, including a No Deal Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] has enhanced the likelihood of a border poll that would end the Union.”
Elsewhere, the DUP issued a statement saying that legally-binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement “will be required for Parliament to support any deal.” This came as DUP MEP Diane Dodds said that an EU explainer document on the current Withdrawal Agreement “underlines the threat the proposed backstop poses to our economy and to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”
Democratic Unionist Party
The former Foreign Secretary and leading Brexiteer, Boris Johnson, said yesterday that he could back the Brexit deal if Prime Minister Theresa May was able to secure a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Johnson said, “The argument is now about how to get out of the backstop. I think that some of the ideas that the Prime Minister has mentioned in the House of Commons do seem sensible… I would want to look very carefully at what is being proposed, and it would have to give the United Kingdom a UK-sized exit from the backstop. We would have to be able to get out by a certain time and we would have to be able to get out of our own volition.” Johnson has previously called for the Prime Minister to “junk” the backstop entirely. However, asked if changes to the backstop proposals could come in the form of a legally binding codicil outside the Withdrawal Agreement, Johnson said, “I don’t think that would be good enough,” an opinion he claimed was shared by officials in Downing Street.
The UK economy expanded at its slowest annual rate since 2012, with growth in 2018 being 1.4%, down from 1.8% in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Quarterly growth also slowed, with growth in the final quarter of 2014 at 0.2% – down from 0.6% in the third quarter. The ONS attributed the slowdown to a fall in factory output and car production. Head of GDP at the ONS, Rob Kent-Smith, said, “GDP slowed in the last three months of the year with the manufacturing of cars and steel products seeing steep falls and construction also declining… services continued to grow with the health sector, management consultants and IT all doing well.” Chancellor Philip Hammond said the data showed the economy remained “fundamentally strong.”
Elsewhere, a new report by the Treasury Select Committee has disputed the Chancellor’s claim that there would be a “deal dividend” if a No Deal Brexit was prevented. Committee Chair Nicky Morgan said that the Office for Budget Responsibility had already assumed an orderly departure from the EU, adding, “Business confidence may improve with increased certainty, but it’s not credible to describe this as a dividend.” Morgan also said that the Chancellor’s objective of running a budget surplus has “no credibility” and “it should be replaced.”
A new YouGov poll for The Times suggests Theresa May could win a working majority if a general election were held today. According to YouGov’s modelling, which correctly predicted a hung parliament in 2017, Conservatives would gain 4 seats to take 321 seats, while the Labour party would fall to 250 seats, down 12 from 2017. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party would both gain 4 seats each.
Several EU member states are preparing to grant temporary permissions regimes for UK asset management firms in the event of a No Deal Brexit, the Financial Times reports. France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Finland are among countries which have amended national laws to ensure UK firms can still serve foreign customers.
In a speech in London at the Royal United Services Institute, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday said, “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass.” He added that Britain and its allies had to be ready “to use hard power to support our global interests”.
Williamson revealed the new “Littoral Strike Ship concept” that will consist of “globally deployable, multi-role vessels [that] would be able to conduct a wide range of operations from crisis support to war fighting.”
Elsewhere, Italian Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta yesterday said that NATO’s national budget spending rules should be changed to include “parts of [our] spending that are related to defence but are not in the defence budget.” She added, “Spending money to develop cybersecurity defences should count the same as spending money to buy tanks … I am not saying we should not spend money, but that we should spend money on things that were not previously considered as defence spending.”
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is facing a legal challenge from Eurotunnel over his decision to award contracts to three ferry companies under No Deal contingency planning. Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, has argued contracts were awarded through a “secretive and flawed procurement process.” An expedited trial is expected to begin on 1 March.