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)

May to ‘Move Quickly’ If She Loses Vote on Deal: Brexit Update

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May lost her first Parliamentary vote of 2019 as the House of Commons backed a move designed to reduce the chances of a no-deal Brexit.

Key Developments

  • Government plans Parliament vote on Brexit deal on Jan. 15. May still seeking new guarantees from EU
  • PM’s spokesman denies U.K. officials talking to EU about extending Article 50
  • May told Cabinet she’ll ‘move quickly’ if government loses vote on deal -- though it’s not clear what she has in mind
  • Opponents of No Deal flex their Parliamentary muscles, defeating May in an amendment to the Finance Bill -- and warn they’ll do it again

No-Deal Opponents Defeat May on Finance Bill (7 p.m.)

May has been defeated on an amendment to the finance bill. The detail of the amendment is less significant than the defeat. May lost 303 to 296 as Conservative lawmakers rebelled to restrict the government’s power to raise taxes in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The rebels say their victory shows their determination to stop the U.K. crashing out of the EU without an agreement in March.

Oliver Letwin, who has almost never rebelled before, explained his intent to vote against May again and again if the government pursued No Deal. “We will not allow a No Deal exit to sustain itself,’’ he said.

May to Fight Finance Bill Amendment (5.30 p.m.)

The government isn’t backing down, and is planning to fight the amendment to the Finance Bill from Labour’s Yvette Cooper, currently being debated on the floor of the House of Commons. Cooper’s amendment would limit the government’s tax-varying powers in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The Treasury suggested last night it was relaxed about the move, but tonight a person familiar with government plans said Tories will be ordered to vote against the amendment. Even so, enough are likely to rebel that it will pass, as lawmakers flex their muscles and warn they’ll try to stop a No Deal Brexit.

Little EU Flexibility on Backstop (5 p.m.)

Some more from the meeting between Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in Dublin today. Behind the scenes, Ireland stuck steadfastly to its position on the backstop, as the two foreign ministers discussed what flexibility might be shown to the U.K. to help May get the deal through Parliament, according to two people familiar with the talks.

Though the German side was keen to explore what kind of wiggle room might be on offer, in the end, the conclusion was that while the political declaration could be tweaked, the backstop remains written in stone.

May Will ‘Move Quickly’ if She Loses Vote on Deal (4:20 p.m.)

The premier told Cabinet ministers that while she’s doing everything possible to win the vote, she would “move quickly” if the Commons rejects her Brexit deal on January 15, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

It’s not clear what May has in mind, but she would be likely to make a statement to Parliament setting out her next steps as soon as the result is clear. That could include returning to Brussels to seek more concessions from the EU.

Cabinet Chatter (1:25 p.m.)

Environment Secretary Michael Gove provided the most memorable image in the Cabinet discussion. According to one person present, he compared those who are hoping for a better deal to middle-aged men holding out for movie star Scarlett Johansson. Justice Secretary David Gauke responded that perhaps the actor would be riding a unicorn -- a reference to the idea that Brexit hardliners are chasing fantasies.

Cabinet Losing Patience With No-Deal Tories (1:10 p.m.)

This morning’s Cabinet meeting saw more evidence that the top of the Conservative Party is losing patience with those in their ranks pushing for a no-deal Brexit. According to two people familiar with the discussions, the talks were mostly focused no-deal planning -- but the mood was that this would be a very bad outcome. Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said history would take a dim view of a Cabinet that pressed ahead with that scenario.

Rudd also said ministers should reach across the House of Commons to find a position for which there was a majority -- effectively arguing that the government should try to win the support of those who want a softer Brexit.

May Still Seeking EU Assurances on Backstop (12:45 p.m.)

Prime Minister Theresa May is still seeking assurances from the European Union over the so-called Irish backstop provision in the Brexit, and lawmakers will be updated on progress before the Parliament vote takes places, the premier’s spokesman James Slack told reporters.

“The prime minister is continuing to seek assurances from EU leaders that neither we nor the EU want to use the backstop,” Slack said. May could also speak to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this week, though nothing is yet scheduled, he said. They last spoke on Friday.

Slack also reiterated that the government has no plans to extend Article 50, and denied recent media reporters that officials have been sounding out the EU over doing so. Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting was on what assurances lawmakers will need from the bloc to secure parliamentary approval for the deal, Slack said.

On the cross-party amendment to the Finance Bill designed to make it harder for the government to pursue a no-deal Brexit, Slack told reporters the measure is “not desirable” but its impact on no-deal planning would be “inconvenient rather than anything more significant.”

Government Plans Parliament Vote on Jan. 15 (12:40 p.m.)

The government plans to hold the parliamentary vote on its Brexit deal on Jan. 15, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman James Slack told reporters. The date is subject to confirmation by lawmakers on Wednesday. The plan is for Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to kick off the debate in Parliament on Wednesday, and for the premier to close the debate herself next Tuesday.

Clark: Avoiding No-Deal Brexit ‘Essential’ (11:40 a.m.)

Some strong words have just come from Business Secretary Greg Clark, who told the House of Commons that “no deal should not be contemplated” because of the disruption it would cause to time-sensitive supply chains.

“Much of the just-in-time production goes through the Straits of Dover, and estimates that have been made suggest that there would be an impact of a reduction of around 80 percent of the capacity,” Clark said. “It is evident that avoiding no deal is an essential task for all of us in this House.”

Clark said that any disruption at Dover would also “affect our trade across the Irish Sea as well.” Despite his opposition to a no-deal Brexit, he also said it’s “prudent” that all government departments prepare for the possibility of one.

Ireland Wouldn’t Block Article 50 Extension (11 a.m.)

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney made clear that his government wouldn’t block any request by the U.K. to extend the Article 50 process if the U.K. was to ask for it -- though he stressed that British Prime Minister Theresa May has made no such request.

But Coveney’s German counterpart, Heiko Maas, was more cautious. Speaking in Dublin, he pointed out the “big risk” inherent in “playing for time” or hoping for a last-minute deal to aid May.

France Says Nothing More to Offer Britain (10:55 a.m.)

May should not expect more concessions from the EU on her Brexit deal, France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said.

The British prime minister has already received reassurances that the so-called backstop would only be used as a last resort and even the EU doesn’t want to trigger it, Loiseau told reporters in Brussels on her way into a meeting with European counterparts.

“These are political assurances but there is nothing more we can do,” she said. The deal struck between the U.K. and the EU in November is “the best possible agreement -- it’s the only one.”

Barclay: Threats Against MPs a Reason to Back Deal (10 a.m.)

Members of Parliament were shocked Monday by scenes of a high-profile anti-Brexit lawmaker Anna Soubry being harassed by protesters as she gave an interview on live TV. Lawmakers condemned the intimidation she and other politicians and journalists have endured in recent months, which has included threats of death and sexual violence.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay further stoked the controversy Tuesday by using the episode to argue that a second referendum would be a bad idea -- that it would add to the climate of division and deep unease in Westminster that’s dominated since the vote of June 2016.

A second referendum “would be hugely damaging to our democracy, to our politics,” Barclay told the BBC. “We saw in the appalling scenes outside Parliament in the way my colleague Anna Soubry was disgracefully treated yesterday how divisive this process has been, and I think it is time now -- after what has been a difficult period of time -- to come together in the national interest, to unite behind the only deal on the table.”

Germany Urges U.K. MPs to Get Behind Deal (9:40 a.m.)

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has urged British policy makers to “act responsibly” and “unite behind the agreement that we have spent so much time and effort negotiating.” In the text of a speech in Dublin on Tuesday, Maas also emphasized the EU’s “full solidarity with Ireland.”

“We insisted, and still do, that a hard border dividing the Irish island is unacceptable,” Maas said. “Some people called us stubborn. But the truth is: Avoiding a hard border in Ireland is a fundamental concern.”

Barclay Says Practical Difficulties to Delay Brexit (8 a.m.)

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay pushed back against the notion of delaying Brexit beyond March 29, pointing out the “practical difficulties” it would cause because of European Parliamentary elections due at the end of May.

He also said doing so would require the agreement of the other 27 EU member states, adding that he personally hasn’t been involved in any discussions with the bloc on extending Article 50 -- though that’s no especially surprising given his remit is now to prepare Britain for Brexit, leaving negotiations to May.

But he stopped short of denying it clearly. Asked whether he could deny that officials had discussed it, Barclay said: “Yes, because I can be very clear that the government’s policy is to leave on March 29.”

Barclay said the government is still seeking from the EU “legal and political assurances” on the so-called Irish backstop provision, and that Parliament would be updated during the debate on May’s Brexit deal that starts tomorrow. “It’s in both sides’ interest to avoid the uncertainty of no deal,” he said, reiterating the government’s line from recent weeks.


Coming Up:

  • May chairs Cabinet meeting at 9:30 a.m.
  • May meets lawmakers who are trying to block no deal
  • Finance Bill debated in Parliament
  • German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is in Dublin. Brexit will be discussed.

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