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MEPs yesterday approved the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission President, with 383 voting in favour, 327 against, and 22 abstaining. She needed to secure a majority of 374 in order to be approved. She will take over the role on 1 November.
Prior to the vote, von der Leyen made a speech to MEPs in which she outlined her commitments for her presidency. They included a European Unemployment Benefit Scheme, an EU-wide rule of law mechanism, a new pact on migration and asylum as well as improving the Spitzenkandidaten system for the next European elections.
On Brexit, she said, “The Withdrawal Agreement concluded with the Government of the United Kingdom provides certainty where Brexit created uncertainty,” adding, “I stand ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason. In any case, the United Kingdom will remain our ally, our partner and our friend.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, will replace von der Leyen as German Defence Minister.
Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe discussed the possible consequences of the vote on Al Jazeera English yesterday.
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The European Union will reject any proposals to remove the Irish backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement put forward by the future UK Prime Minister, EU sources have told the Guardian. This comes after both Conservative Party leadership contenders called for the backstop to be scrapped in a new Brexit deal with the EU.
Elsewhere, Irish Senator Neale Richmond, who chairs the Brexit committee, said yesterday, “The backstop is a vital aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement, an aspect that was developed in light of the UK Government’s own red lines… The Withdrawal Agreement is the only vehicle towards a managed Brexit. It won’t be reopened.” Irish Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe also said, “We will not be changing the backstop,” adding, “The person who is taking over [as UK PM] will not change the key issues we are facing.”
Meanwhile, an EU diplomat is quoted by Reuters saying, “If [the UK] come and ask us to renegotiate the Brexit deal, we will say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’,” while another said, “There is very little wiggle room on what the EU can offer a new [UK Prime Minister].”
Pro-Remain Conservative MP Dominic Grieve said yesterday that blocking a No Deal Brexit “technically may be quite difficult.” However, he added, “If the Government persists in trying to carry out a No Deal Brexit I think that administration is going to fall. All Conservatives want to find a way out of this that avoids bringing down one’s own administration and if I could find a way… then I will take it,” he said. He also said, “By the end of next week [the result of the Conservative leadership contest] there are going to be more Conservatives who have indicated No Deal is unacceptable and many of them will no longer be on the frontbench.”
Elsewhere, the House of Lords will vote today on further amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which was passed by the House of Commons last week. One amendment would seek to require the Government to lay published reports on the restoration of devolved Government in Northern Ireland before both Houses of Parliament, and to table a motion in neutral terms in the House of Commons. As with previous Commons amendments, this measure is designed to make it more difficult for the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament in October in order to force through a No Deal Brexit.
Meanwhile, Conservative MP and chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs select committee, Simon Hoare, yesterday suggested he could vote against the Government in a vote of no confidence to prevent a No Deal Brexit, saying, “I am concerned… Leaving without a deal on [World Trade Organization] terms would be disastrous for UK agriculture, and that is… something I am not prepared to stand idly by, twiddling my thumbs and watch happen.”
Separately, the Labour MP Sarah Champion said yesterday that she would be prepared to accept a No Deal Brexit. Champion, who represents Leave-voting Rotherham, told BBC One’s Politics Live, “If it came to it, I would take No Deal if that meant we could leave, because we have to leave.” Asked if she would back a Labour No Confidence motion in the Government to prevent No Deal, Champion said, “I don’t know, ask me closer to the time… if my party comes out as a Remain party… then I can’t support that, it goes against democracy.”
This comes as the HuffPost UK reports that around 10 Labour MPs are prepared to support a No Deal over no Brexit at all. Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck said, “I would obviously prefer to leave with a deal, but if it comes down to no Brexit or No Deal then I would go with No Deal because the consequences mean that Labour will not be in Government in the future and we will lose seats. For me that is a far worse scenario than any Brexit outcome would be.”
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Boris Johnson could prorogue Parliament in October, effectively preventing MPs from opposing a No Deal Brexit on 31 October, Sky News reports. Sources from Johnson’s team have suggested that he could schedule a Queen’s Speech in early November if he becomes Prime Minister, which would require the prorogation of Parliament for between one and two weeks at the end of October.
Conservative MP Guto Bebb, who has announced he will not be standing again at the next General Election, commented, “If you decided to do a Queen’s Speech in early November, you prorogue Parliament in mid-October so we didn’t sit for those final two weeks in October. It would mean a No Deal Brexit which has no democratic mandate whatsoever would be imposed upon the people of this country without this House sitting.”
Elsewhere, The Times quotes sources in Johnson’s team as saying that he is preparing for a General Election within the next year, as there is concern about the difficulty to pass legislation with a majority of three for the Conservatives, which could happen after the by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire. Johnson’s spokesman said however, “There are no plans for an election before 2022. The focus is on winning the [Conservative Party] leadership campaign.”
Meanwhile, writing in the Telegraph, the former Conservative Party leader William Hague warned yesterday that in the event of a No Deal Brexit, “There is no majority, in Parliament or the country, to do what would need doing. Such a majority would have to be mobilised and elected in a general election,” adding, “[A] radical, liberated, ambitious set of policies [in a No Deal scenario]… cannot be carried out with the current House of Commons.”
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The Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, said last night that she was “surprised” by the recent comments of the two Conservative Party leadership candidates, who both ruled out a compromise on the Irish backstop at a leadership debate on Monday. Speaking to Politico, Rudd said the views of the candidates “will collide with the reality when whichever one wins starts negotiating and starts dealing with Parliament, which may be more difficult than they think to engage with.” Rudd added that there is an “activist Speaker [of the House of Commons]” and a “lot of people who are very committed to finding a way [to stop No Deal] and there is legislation and procedures evolving all the time.” She also said, however, that there would be a “window” of opportunity to negotiate a Brexit deal and the new Prime Minister “will get a hearing” from the EU.
A group of business and education bodies, including the British Retail Consortium, London First, Universities UK, and UK Hospitality, have called on the next Prime Minister to lower the foreign worker salary threshold from £30,000 to £20,000, cautioning that over 60% of all jobs in the UK are below the current threshold. London First Chief Executive Jasmine Whitbread said, “It is vital that the Government does all it can to keep the country at full strength at a time of great uncertainty. The thousands of businesses we represent are clear that without a bold move now on immigration reform, the skills shortages many companies face risk becoming even more acute.”
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported yesterday that UK wages rose by 3.6% in the three months to May compared to the same period last year, up from 3.4% in the three months to April. The unemployment rate remained at 3.8%, the lowest since 1974. Matt Hughes, Deputy Head of labour market statistics at the ONS, said, “Regular pay is growing at its fastest for nearly 11 years in cash terms, and its quickest for over three years after taking account of inflation. The labour market continues to be strong, with the employment rate still at a near-record high and unemployment down again.”