Theresa May is gathering senior members of her cross-party Brexit negotiating team today for a private summit to finalise the withdrawal deal that she will offer MPs in two weeks’ time.
The prime minister announced last week that Parliament would vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) in the week beginning 3 June. If it is not passed, the default position is that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October without a deal.
With May’s proposed deal with the EU already rejected three times in the Commons, the upcoming vote “really is the last roll of the dice” for the PM, says the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.
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Writing in The Sunday Times this weekend, May said: “When the Withdrawal Agreement Bill comes before MPs, it will represent a new, bold offer to MPs across the House of Commons, with an improved package of measures that I believe can win new support.”
But questions are already being raised about just how “new” and “bold” the offer will prove to be. “There’s nothing new in it,” a government aide told the Financial Times. “It’s all the stuff we know about already.”
The Daily Telegraph claims to have seen a note sent to ministers last week confirming that the Bill will contain a collection of the promises made to different factions of MPs over recent weeks. These include promising Parliament a vote on the future relationship as well as the use of the Irish backstop. The newspaper says there is also a pledge aimed at Brexiteers to seek “alternative arrangements” to the backstop by 2021, and in an apparent sop to Labour, a commitment on workers’ rights and environmental regulations.
Taken together, No. 10 “sees this as a smart package of compromises designed to win over different interest groups”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard. But “the reality is attitudes have long since hardened against the deal, and these ‘wins’ [are] already banked by those involved”, he adds.
Indeed, Sir Bill Cash, chair of the Commons’ EU Select Committee, told the Telegraph: “This is pretty cosmetic stuff. It will not have any effect on Leave-supporting MPs. In fact, there are votes coming back to our side from people who backed the deal last time.”
One of these switchers includes former Brexit secretary David Davis, who told LBC over the weekend that he will now be voting against the deal.
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the Government’s attempts to secure an agreement, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that MPs who want to deliver the referendum result should vote for the Bill and worry about the detail afterwards.
“If you want, as an MP, to leave the European Union and deliver on the result of referendum - no matter the details you want to see in terms of the future relationship - you need to vote for legislation and then have the debate in the committee stages later on exactly what the details are,” Hancock said.
“No doubt there will be votes on really big issues, on whether to have a ‘People’s vote’ or whether to have a customs union, both of which I’m against.”
After the cross-party Brexit negotiating team have signed off the package, the full Cabinet will meet to discuss it - but hopes are not high among the latter group. “I’ll listen to what Theresa has to say in Cabinet on Tuesday, but unless there’s a really big change we haven’t got a chance,” an unnamed minister told The Sun.
Another cabinet source said the PM should consider scrapped the WAB, rather than face defeat. “It’s only going to stoke up more anger,” the source told the newspaper.
Some insiders had suggested May might hold indicative votes to allow MPs to choose their own form of Brexit before the Bill entered the Commons, but Tory party officials have told the FT that she is “going cold” on the idea.
“We could end up with the worst of all worlds,” said one official. “What would happen if Labour simply failed to turn up for the votes? It wouldn’t solve anything, but you’d have the governing party tearing itself to shreds in public.”
In the event that there are no indicative votes, the Government would not have to publish May’s proposed plan until the week of the vote. “There’s no final decision yet, but if we don’t hold the vote until the end of that week, there should be time to publish the Bill at the start,” a government aide told Politico’s Blanchard.
This would tally with a report by James Forsyth in The Sun over the weekend that said ministers had pencilled in Friday 7 June as the date of the crucial vote.
Then, “if the second reading is voted down, May will be told her time is up - both by her MPs and her activists, and they will stage a vote of no confidence in her on 15 June”, Forsyth reports.
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