May's Strategy Faces Renewed Threat in Parliament: Brexit Update

(Bloomberg) -- With Theresa May seemingly heading for a high-stakes game of brinkmanship with the U.K. Parliament and the European Union, British politicians are again seeking ways to take control of the Brexit process.

Key Developments:

  • Parliament holds latest set of votes on May’s Brexit strategy on Thursday
  • Pro-Brexit ERG group still deciding whether to vote against or abstain in vote on government’s motion; official says May will not re-draft it
  • Starmer says Labour will back Yvette Cooper’s draft law seeking to delay Brexit if there’s no deal by mid-March

May ‘Determined’ to Get Backstop Changes (4:15 p.m.)

At his regular afternoon briefing, May’s spokesman James Slack was asked if the government is confident of winning the vote on Thursday, given the objections from the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservatives (see 11:50 a.m.)

“We are determined to get the changes that MPs need in order to support the deal, and we hope they would support that,” Slack said. Earlier, a U.K. official ruled out rewriting the Brexit motion.

Slack was also asked if the promised votes on Feb. 27 in Parliament would be the last on the Plan B options for Brexit. “I can’t go beyond two votes that haven’t taken place yet,’ he said, adding that the government was still aiming to bring a so-called meaningful vote on the government’s final Brexit deal to Parliament “as soon as possible.”

The question relates to the opposition accusation of May that she’s using votes in Parliament to persuade would-be rebels in her party to hold fire, with the aim of running down the clock to the Brexit deadline on March 29.

‘Frank and Serious’ Labour-Conservative Talks (4 p.m.)

Labour’s Keir Starmer and Jon Trickett “had a frank and serious exchange” with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, a Labour spokesperson said in a statement.

The Labour side called on their counterparts “to work to stop the prime minister further running down the clock” and urged the government to shift its red lines on Brexit, according to a statement. The BBC reported Lidington and Starmer agreed to meet again next week.

May Will Not Draft Brexit Motion: Official (1:30 p.m.)

A government official said May would not be re-drafting the Brexit motion due for debate Thursday, as some of her pro-Brexit Conservative members of Parliament have demanded. They are concerned her plans take the prospect of no-deal off the table; they believe the U.K. needs it in its armory to coax EU negotiators into last-minute concessions.

But May’s spokesman James Slack told reporters that leaving the EU on March 29 is the “default legal position” even if no deal is reached. “If you are asking me, is no-deal still on the table, then the answer is ’yes’,” Slack said.

He also denied comments attributed by broadcaster ITV to Brexit negotiator Oliver Robbins that the so-called Irish backstop was intended as a “bridge” to a permanent customs union with the EU. “The prime minister has been clear that the backstop is an insurance policy,” Slack said.

Ford Warns of ‘Catastrophic’ No-Deal Brexit: BBC (12:40 p.m.)

Automaker Ford told the BBC it will “will take whatever action is necessary to preserve the competitiveness of our European business” -- that was a response to an earlier report suggesting the company was preparing to move manufacturing out of the U.K.

A no-deal Brexit would be “catastrophic for the U.K. auto industry and Ford’s manufacturing operations in the country,” Ford said in statement to the BBC.

May Swerves Questions About Robbins (12.30 p.m.)

At Prime Minister’s Questions, the Scottish National Party’s Ian Blackford asked May twice to repudiate what her “loose-lipped” chief negotiator Oliver Robbins had said in Brussels. May didn’t, simply sticking to the lines she used Tuesday on bringing a vote on her Brexit deal back to Parliament. She referred back to Robbins again later, referring dismissively to questions “relying on what someone said to someone else, as overheard by someone else in a bar.”

This is very far from a denial of what Robbins is reported to have said, that May is planning to wait until the very last moment before putting her Brexit deal to a vote in Parliament.

Brexiteers Discuss Voting Against Government (11:50 a.m.)

Two members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs, who declined to be identified, confirmed discussions are still ongoing whether to vote against the government motion on Thursday. Their complaint is its endorsement of the Jan. 29 “Spelman amendment,” which called for the government to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

It’s not clear that a government defeat would have significant impact, but could illustrate the strength of feeling against May.

BBC: ERG Won’t Back Government Brexit Motion (10:10 a.m.)

The Conservative pro-Brexit European Research Group caucus is still deciding whether to abstain or vote against the government’s motion on Thursday, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg said on Twitter.

That’s because the government’s motion reflects the votes in Parliament on Jan. 29 -- the mandate to try to renegotiate the so-called Irish backstop with the European Union (which the ERG backed), and the non-binding amendment ruling out a no-deal Brexit (which it didn’t).

Varadkar: Peace Process Trumps Economy (10 a.m.)

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar went off script in his Dublin speech to make the point that protecting the country’s peace process is “much more important than money and jobs” -- a message perhaps aimed at Brexiteers who expect Ireland to fold on the backstop because of the risk a no-deal Brexit poses for the nation’s economy.

Speaking at a Financial Times conference in Dublin, Varadkar reiterated that his government is continuing to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, while still believing a deal will be reached.

Starmer: Prime Minister Pursuing ‘Reckless’ Policy (Earlier)

Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said his party is attempting to put a “hard stop” on Prime Minister Theresa May’s “reckless” policy of trying to run the clock down on Brexit.

Labour has proposed an amendment seeking to either force the premier to hold another “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal by Feb. 27, or to admit she no longer has a divorce agreement with the EU and give Parliament a say over what happens next. Starmer told BBC Radio 4 the party would also back a draft bill published by a cross-party group led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper that would seek to delay Brexit if there’s no deal by mid-March.

“Everybody observing that what the prime minister is up to is obvious, she’s coming to Parliament every other week pretending there’s progress and trying to buy another two weeks,” he said. “The sense that we cannot go on like this is growing, it’s palpable in the House.”

Starmer also reiterated that Labour was keeping open the option of backing a second referendum on Brexit.

Earlier:

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