International desk, Jan 29: Theresa May has told MPs she will seek to re-open negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland backstop.The PM said she would go back to Brussels to get a “significant and legally binding change” to the controversial proposal, which aims to stop the return of border checks.
The EU has said it will not change the legal text agreed with the UK PM.
Mrs May said she knew there was a “limited appetite” in the EU, but she believed she could “secure” it.
She is expected to have phone calls with key EU leaders throughout the day ahead of a series of Commons votes over the future direction of Brexit, and has already spoken to the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.
Mrs May said the vote later would be a chance to “send a clear message” to EU on the backstop. Ahead of the votes the pound rose to around its highest level against the euro since May 2017.
But the EU was “standing tough” on its position of no renegotiation and they were “mesmerised” with what was happening in Parliament, BBC Europe editor Katya Adler said.
Senior Brexiteer rebels – who voted down the PM’s deal last month – have indicated they would be willing to back the rest of the UK-EU Brexit deal if she gets legal changes to the backstop.
The backstop is the insurance policy in Mrs May’s plan to prevent checks on goods and people returning to the Northern Ireland border, which some MPs fear could leave the UK tied to the EU’s rules indefinitely.
But some MPs from the PM’s own backbenches, who backed Remain in the referendum, will support rival proposals to try and rule out the UK leaving the EU without a deal.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May herself was the “obstacle to a solution” and that, whatever happened in the votes later, it had “now become inevitable” that the government would have to extend Article 50 – the mechanism which means the UK leaves the EU on 29 March.
MPs put forward a string of amendments to modify the prime minister’s Brexit plan after it was voted down by an historic margin on 15 January.
Speaker of the House, John Bercow, has named seven amendments to be debated and voted on, including one from senior Tory MP Sir Graham Brady calling on “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, and one from Labour MP Yvette Cooper, which could delay the exit date by up to nine months.
Opening the debate, Mrs May said: “This House has left no-one in any doubt about what it does not want. Today we need to send an emphatic message about what we do want.”
A series of votes on the amendments is expected from 19:00 GMT.
Conservative MPs have been instructed by the government to vote for Sir Graham’s amendment.
Mrs May said backing it would “give the mandate I need to negotiate with Brussels an arrangement that commands a majority in this House – not a further exchange of letters, but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement”.
She added: “The time has come for words to be matched by deeds. If you want to tell Brussels what this House will accept, you have to vote for it. If you want to leave with a deal, you have to vote for it. If you want Brexit, you have to vote for Brexit.”
The Westminster leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – whose votes Mrs May’s government relies on to win key votes – Nigel Dodds, welcomed the announcement and pledged his party’s support.
The Labour Party and a number of Remain-backing MPs are supporting Ms Cooper’s amendment that would create a bill enabling Article 50 to be delayed by up to nine months if the government does not have a plan agreed in Parliament by the end of February.
Labour said it was supporting the amendment because the bill it would create could “give MPs a temporary window to agree a deal that can bring the country together”.
However, Mr Corbyn, told the Commons they wanted a shorter window of three months to allow time for a deal to be finalised.
“The Labour Party will back the amendment tonight because to crash out without a deal would be deeply damaging for industry and economy,” he said.
He added: “It’s quite clear to me that the first duty we have is to block a disastrous no deal and I hope amendments to that effect will indeed be carried by the House later.
“If amendments intended to rule out no deal are defeated and if this government is serious about keeping the threat of no deal on the table, then it’s not even close to being prepared and the exit date would have to be extended.”
Some members of Mrs May’s cabinet, including Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, had called for a free vote on Tuesday’s amendments to allow them to back Ms Cooper’s proposal, but the government is whipping against it.
Mrs May is said to have tried to reassure her cabinet this will not be their last chance to vote on the next steps of Brexit, promising to return to the Commons “as soon as possible” with a revised deal and offering a second “meaningful vote” on her proposals.
If no new deal is reached by 13 February, the PM will make a statement to Parliament that day and table an amendable motion for debate the following day, re-opening discussions on how to move forward with Brexit.
But this has not reassured all of her party, with senior Tories including Ken Clarke and Oliver Letwin pledging to support the Cooper amendment in the vote later.
Separately, Conservative MPs on both sides of the Brexit argument have been planning for a no-deal scenario.
Former Remainers, including ex-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and government ministers Stephen Hammond and Rob Buckland, have been working with Brexiteers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker on the plan – in talks co-ordinated by Conservative MP Kit Malthouse.
According to a leaked document, the proposal drawn up by the rival factions would extend the transition period – during which the UK would continue to follow EU rules and pay into its budget – from the end of 2020 to December 2021, to allow more time to reach a free trade deal.
EU citizens rights would be guaranteed during this time, there would be no customs checks on the Irish border and the UK would pay the £39bn so-called “divorce deal”.
Source: News Agencies