Hardline Brexiters threaten to vote down Theresa May's motion

ERG Tories say PM is effectively ruling out option of no deal, which is ‘madness’

Hardline Brexit supporters are threatening to inflict yet another Commons defeat on Theresa May because they fear the government is effectively ruling out leaving the EU with no deal.

Members of the Tory European Research Group are unhappy with the wording of a No 10 motion because it endorses parliament’s vote against any Brexit without a withdrawal agreement.

The motion for debate on Thursday simply affirms “the approach to leaving the EU” backed by the Commons on 29 January, when an amendment was passed in favour of an attempt to replace the Northern Ireland backstop with “alternative arrangements”.

The motion was thought to be fairly uncontroversial until pro-Brexit supporters realised it also encompassed a second amendment passed on that day, which ruled out a no-deal Brexit. The amendment, tabled by Dame Caroline Spelman, “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship”.

The ERG group, led by arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg, is planning either to vote against or abstain on Thursday’s government motion, potentially causing another embarrassing parliamentary loss for the prime minister. However, talks with government whips will continue on Thursday in an attempt to find a compromise.

An ERG MP said many of its members were “not minded to support such a clumsily worded motion” that effectively ruled out a no-deal Brexit. Another said the group would not trust verbal assurances from No 10 that no deal was still on the table as such promises from the dispatch box had not been honoured many times in the past.

Mark Francois, the vice-chairman of the ERG, told the BBC: “We cannot vote for this as it is currently configured because it rules out no deal and removes our negotiating leverage in Brussels. The prime minister, if she went through the lobbies for this tomorrow night, would be voting against the guarantees she has given in the Commons for months [that no-deal remains an option]. It is madness.”

No 10 insisted that May was still leaving open the possibility of Brexit without a deal but could not explain how this was compatible with parliament’s support for the Spelman amendment.

The prime minister’s spokesman said: “What MPs are voting for is in line with government policy which is to leave the EU with a deal and to secure the changes that we need to allow the house to support that. But if you’re asking me whether no deal remains on the table, the answer is yes.”

A government source said discussions with the ERG MPs were ongoing but said No 10 would not tweak or replace its motion to satisfy the group.

The motion is not legally binding but May will be keen to avoid an outbreak of disunity at a time when Brussels needs to be convinced that she could win parliamentary support for any concessions they offer. The prime minister still holds out hope that opposing factions of Tory MPs could swing behind an amended withdrawal agreement out of fear that the alternative would be worse.

Hard-Brexit supporters are already furious about comments from Olly Robbins, the government’s chief negotiator, suggesting No 10 intends to bounce them into support for May’s deal as the only alternative to a delayed Brexit.

Robbins was overheard outlining the strategy in a Brussels bar by an ITV reporter. He suggested parliament would rule out no deal and therefore MPs would be faced with a stark choice between accepting May’s withdrawal agreement or a long delay to Brexit.

According to the broadcaster, Robbins said the government had “got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March ... extension is possible, but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one”.

“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension,” Robbins was overheard saying. “In the end they will probably just give us an extension.”

Theresa May and the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, played down the remarks but neither ruled out the possibility of applying for an extension of article 50, meaning the UK would not leave the EU on 29 March after all.


Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

The GuardianTramp

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