May defends under-fire Brexit plan: 'a deal is within our grasp'

PM’s plan faces criticism from Labour and Tory MPs from both sides of the Brexit divide

Theresa May’s hopes of selling her Brexit plan in parliament were dealt a further blow on Thursday as Tory MPs lined up to condemn the new draft, including veteran Eurosceptics Owen Paterson and Iain Duncan Smith, whom the prime minister had name-checked in the hope of winning their support.

Heralding the 26-page declaration on the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union, to be agreed by EU leaders at a summit on Sunday, May told the Commons that a deal was “now within our grasp” and would benefit both sides.

Yet almost 40 minutes went by in the chamber before MPs began to offer supportive words to the prime minister, in a two-and-a-half-hour session of MPs’ questions after her statement.

May said there was “an explicit commitment to consider facilitative arrangement and technologies to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland”, and thanked Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson for their input on that clause, having seen them in Downing Street last week.

Her thanks were jeered by some Tory MPs, yet Paterson and Duncan Smith later said May had not done enough on the issue. Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, said he still had severe concerns about the backstop and had not been won round by the pledges in the draft political declaration.

He said his own red line was the removal of the backstop from the legally-binding withdrawal agreement. “I would hope that she would now consider that none of this is at all workable unless we get the withdrawal agreement amended and so that any arrangements we make strip out that backstop and leave us with that,” he said.

Paterson also warned that the inclusion of the backstop meant “the horror of Northern Ireland being split off” from the UK remained.

His concerns were also echoed by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, chief whip of the government’s confidence and supply partners, the DUP, who said the support of his party was conditional on the eradication of the backstop.

“If she wants to have the support of my party for the withdrawal agreement then we need to see an end to the backstop and those alternative arrangements put in place.”

Among others criticising the deal were departed cabinet ministers Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson, who said it “makes a complete nonsense of Brexit”.

Johnson, the former foreign secretary, said May should “junk forthwith the backstop”. It was, he said, the “hard reality of the withdrawal agreement that gives the EU a continuing veto over the unilateral power of the entire United Kingdom to do free-trade deals or to take back control of our laws”.

Raab said the backstop plan left the UK “with no voice and an EU veto over our exit”. People’s desire for the UK to regain control from the EU had led many to support Brexit, he said, adding: “Isn’t it it the regrettable but inescapable reality that this deal gives even more [control] away?”

Other Brexiters said they had wanted an excuse to back the prime minister but found the document lacking. Sir Edward Leigh, a veteran Eurosceptic who has resisted backing a no-confidence vote in May, said she must pledge to abandon the deal if the backstop was still needed in 2022.

“Will the prime minister help those of us that want to try to help her with this vote?” he said.

May said it was her intention that the backstop would never need to be used. “I’m very clear about my firm intention that we will be firmly in our future relationship with the EU by the time of the next general election, so that we can look the British people in the eye and say ‘you gave us an instruction to leave the EU and we delivered’,” she said.

Remain-minded MPs on her benches also piled in to criticise the deal. Justine Greening said: “I don’t believe this is a good deal for Britain, and I don’t think many young people in our country think this is a good deal for Britain at all.”

The former education secretary said that if a parliament voted against both May’s plan and a no-deal departure, “then the only right option is to go back to the people and allow them to have a final say”.

The first MP to offer supportive words was the departed cabinet minister Damian Green, a friend of the prime minister.

“Outside this House there is a much higher appreciation of the tenacity of the prime minister in pursuing a successful deal,” he said, though he added that the prime minister needed to “calm fears” that the UK would be stuck in a backstop arrangement.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, condemned the declaration as “26 pages of waffle”.

Corbyn said the declaration was “a testament to the failure of the Tories’ bungled negotiations”.

The leader of the opposition said the plan breached both May’s red lines for the talks, and his party’s stated six tests.

“This half-baked deal is the product of two years of botched negotiations in which the prime minister’s red lines have been torn up, cabinet resignations have racked up, and Chequers has been chucked. This is a vague menu of options,” he said.

“It is not a plan for the future and is not capable of bringing our country together.”


Peter Walker and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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