Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, departs number 10 Downing Street on her way to attend a weekly questions and answers session in Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Rees-Mogg’s ERG Won’t Support Backstop Amendments: Brexit Update

(Bloomberg) --

Two rival factions of Parliament will fight to take control of Brexit this week: If one wins, Brexit will probably be paused -- perhaps indefinitely. If the other wins, Theresa May will be sent back to Brussels to negotiate the all-but impossible. The fight will play out on Tuesday when lawmakers vote on a series of amendments.

Key Developments

  • May’s government said to support Brady amendment on backstop
  • Rees-Mogg says ERG won’t back any Brexit amendments on Tuesday
  • Labour won’t decide until Tuesday how it will vote on Brexit amendments
  • May’s spokesman says the deal will need to be changed to get through Parliament
  • European Union says Withdrawal Agreement not up for renegotiation

Government Said to Back Brady Amendment (6:10 p.m.)

Prime Minister Theresa May threw the weight of her government behind a plan to scrap the contentious Irish border backstop, according to six people familiar with the prime minister’s comments to Conservative lawmakers.

May told a meeting of Tories to back the amendment proposed by Andrew Murrison and Graham Brady, which would replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements.” The prime minister said the amendment was the only way to convince the European Union to change its position.

May’s stance still needs Cabinet backing. She also pledged to give a statement to Parliament by Feb. 13 if no progress was made in the negotiations, and said lawmakers would have another chance to vote against a no-deal Brexit, according to the people.

Pro-Brexit ERG Won’t Back Amendments (5:20 p.m.)

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit caucus of lawmakers known as the ERG, said the group won’t back amendments that aim to rewrite the Irish backstop in a debate in Parliament on Tuesday.

Without ERG support the amendments -- which aimed to send Theresa May back to Brussels to renegotiate the Irish backstop -- have little chance of success. The proposals so far don’t fully address the problem of the backstop, Rees-Mogg said. “The backstop is the major bone of contention but not the only one.”

He said if the government proposed an amendment he would consider backing it. But he doesn’t expect the government to do so.

May Meets Tory Party Ahead of Votes (5:15 p.m.)

May has turned up to a meeting of her Conservative MPs and ministers to discuss Tuesday’s Brexit votes. Ministers including Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, who hinted she could quit over a no-deal Brexit, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay crammed into the Boothroyd Room in Parliament’s Portcullis House to listen to May.

U.K. Snatching Defeat From Jaws of Victory (3:50 p.m.)

The EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand said the deal had been shaped by Britain, particularly the backstop, and this should be seen by Parliament as a success.

But by continually voting against the deal, the U.K. was at risk of "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," Weyand said during a panel debate in Brussels. Her comments will probably be interpreted in London as an attempt to sell the deal to skeptical lawmakers.

She said leaders haven’t discussed delaying Brexit because this isn’t a government position. If it became so, the EU would demand there be "clarity" by the end of the extended period and there can be no "serial extensions" because Brexit is "eating up political energy" in the bloc.

Labour Keeps MPs Guessing (3:45 p.m.)

Labour will not make its decision on which amendments to back until Tuesday morning, according to three people familiar with the party’s plans.

The opposition party’s leadership faces a dilemma: While it’s keen to find a mechanism to block a no-deal split from the EU, it doesn’t want to give its opponents an opportunity to accuse it of trying to thwart Brexit.

The party leadership is leaning towards backing the Cooper-Boles amendment, which would require May to seek an extension of Article 50 if Parliament doesn’t back her deal, the people said, but has concerns about the way it would be framed. It is also aware that a number of its own lawmakers would refuse to back it.

The EU’s Idea for the Backstop? Another Statement (3:30 p.m.)

The bloc is standing firm that it won’t change the divorce deal. An EU official told reporters on Monday that the most likely outcome is that the two sides formulate another version of the statement that was made in December, which made clear there’s no intention to keep Britain trapped in the customs union.

That statement last month did nothing to assuage concerns in the U.K., leading to a historic defeat of the deal in Parliament. The U.K. now wants stronger guarantees.

There’s no scope to introduce a time-limit, according to the official, and patience is running out. He calculated the backstop has been renegotiated seven times.

Murrison/Brady Amendment Losing Brexiteer Backing? (3:20 p.m.)

It doesn’t look like May is going to get much of a lifeline in tomorrow’s vote. An amendment proposed by Conservative Andrew Murrison, and supported by senior backbencher Graham Brady, was supposed to allow Brexit-backers to show that, if the prime minister could secure enough concessions from the EU, they’d support her.

But some members of the European Research Group of Brexit-backing Conservative lawmakers are saying publicly and privately that the amendment isn’t strong enough. “It’s deliberately vague because it’s meant to mean different things to different people,” leading member Bernard Jenkin told ITV News, adding that as things stood, he wouldn’t be backing it.

Weyand: Divorce Agreement Not for Changing (2:45 p.m.)

The European Union official who led the bloc’s Brexit talks dismissed the U.K.’s hopes of reopening its divorce agreement, saying negotiations came to an end when leaders signed the deal off in November.

Sabine Weyand told a conference in Brussels that there was now a “very high risk” of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal, and said demands from members of the British Parliament to make changes to the much-hated backstop arrangement felt like “groundhog day.”

She said ideas such as giving the U.K. the unilateral right to leave the backstop or adding a legally binding time-limit had already been discussed during the 18-month negotiations, and dismissed “unanimously” by the 27 remaining EU governments.

The EU is now waiting for a signal from the U.K. about what it wants to happen next, Weyand said, adding that, as far as the EU is concerned, this could come from either the government or from Parliament. But she said it was difficult to see how a majority in Parliament for the deal could emerge.

The problem is that since the U.K. and the EU concluded the deal, the government hasn’t “taken ownership” of it, she said. The EU is still open to making changes to the non-legally binding political declaration part of the deal, which covers the two sides’ future relations, Weyand said.

EU: Withdrawal Agreement Can’t Be Reopened (12:30 p.m.)

At about the same time May’s spokesman was telling reporters in London the Brexit deal would need changing to get Parliament’s approval, the EU was reiterating its position that the Withdrawal Agreement itself cannot be changed.

“This Withdrawal Agreement has been agreed with the U.K. government, is endorsed by leaders, and is not open for renegotiation,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels.

The bloc’s stance makes it difficult for May to maneuver even if the U.K. Parliament votes tomorrow to give the prime minister a mandate to seek changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

MPs Will Definitely Have Second Meaningful Vote (12:20 p.m.)

A U.K. official has briefed reporters on the second meaningful vote Parliament will get on the Brexit deal. May’s spokesman, James Slack, earlier said the government wants to do that “as soon as possible.”

According to the official, the second vote will reflect changes in terms of regulations for workers and environment protections, independently of whether the EU responds to any request from the prime minister on the withdrawal agreement. “There’s literally no way there isn’t going to be a second vote, even if Brussels don’t do anything,” the official said.

May Says Brexit Deal Will Have to Change (11:50 a.m.)

The prime minister is “absolutely committed to leaving with a deal,” May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters in London. “But clearly if we are going to obtain parliamentary approval, some changes have to be made.” Significantly, though, he didn’t say if the changes would need to be to the Withdrawal Agreement itself -- the crux of the issue for many Tory Brexiteers.

The government wants to bring a changed deal to Parliament for a meaningful vote “as soon as possible,” Slack said. The premier is continuing talks with lawmakers, including Conservative MEPs, and is prepared to take the outcome of those talks to Brussels to negotiate if needed, he said.

Meanwhile the government is keeping quiet on the various amendments proposed to its Brexit motion until after Speaker John Bercow decides which ones he will select to be heard on Tuesday. “I’m sure he’ll want to make sure a wide range of views are considered,” Slack said.

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