Major says MPs should get free vote on final Brexit deal, with 2nd referendum or halting Brexit both options - Politics live

Last modified: 06: 09 PM GMT+0

Rolling coverage of the day’s political developments as they happen, including Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs and reaction as the EU publishes its draft text of the Brexit withdrawal treaty

Afternoon summary

  • Sir John Major, the Conservative former prime minister, has used a rare intervention in domestic politics to urge Theresa May to allow MPs a free vote on the final Brexit deal. (See 2.39pm.) Major, whose own premiership was undermined by constant criticism from Tory Eurosceptics and who campaigned passionately for remain, used a major speech to deliver a damning verdict on the government’s handling of Brexit. Its aims were “just not credible”, he said. (See 2.22pm.) He said MPs should be given a free vote on the final Brexit deal, implying that calling a second referendum or rejecting Brexit outright should both be options. Major said that parliamentarians had to consider, not just the will of the people, but their wellbeing too. He implied that a soft Brexit, involving Britain being in the single market like Norway, would be the best and most acceptable compromise solution, but he also hinted that he thought there was a case for reversing Brexit and staying in the EU for good. (See 2.18pm and 2.34pm.) Since his election defeat in 1997 Major has normally been loyal to his party and its leader, but today’s speech has infuriated Tory Brexiters (see 5.21pm) and will embolden his party’s pro-Europeans, as well as those (mostly in the Lib Dems) calling for a second referendum. But Major made it clear that he personally did not favour a second referendum; he wants parliament to take the final decision. (See 2.43pm.) And his call for a free vote is likely to be a non-starter. May and Jeremy Corbyn would be most unlikely to agree to such an idea (which runs counter to the whole tradition of using party as a basis for organising in the Commons - something to which party leaders, for obvious reasons, are rather attached.) Also, Major did not seem very clear as to what the free vote would be on. (See 2.39pm.) He seemed to imply that various options should be considered. But parliamentary votes need to be binary. When Labour offered MPs a choice of options on Lords reform in 2003, it was a disaster because all seven options were rejected.

The draft legal text that the commission has published would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea, and no UK prime minister could ever agree to it. I will be making it crystal clear to President Juncker and others that we will never do so. We are committed to ensuring that we see no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but the December text also made it clear that there should continue to be trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as there is today.

  • The Irish government has said the UK needs to come up with alternative solutions if it will not support the EU’s legal document on Brexit. Speaking in the Dail, Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said:

Hardline Brexiteers and some politicians in Northern Ireland will say ‘No’ and will be angry at what they see today, but just saying ‘No’ and being angry is not enough.

If people do not like what they see today, it is incumbent on them to come up with alternative solutions and to flesh out option A and option B, write it down in a legal form that can be enforced and then we can negotiate on that.

That’s all from me for today.

Thanks for the comments.


Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, did not get to question Boris Johnson in person about his leaked letter on the open border. But she has released an open letter to him, making many of the points she made in the UQ on this subject (answered by David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister.) Here’s the text.

I've written to Boris Johnson to demand answers to the questions he fled the Commons to avoid earlier.

— Emily Thornberry (@EmilyThornberry) February 28, 2018

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is set to face a new campaign from his supporters to significantly soften his stance on immigration.

Two influential trade union leaders, as well as Momentum activists and around a dozen other supporters, have signed a letter to the Guardian saying Labour must “defend and extend” freedom of movement.

Corbyn and his shadow home secretary Diane Abbott have previously been sympathetic on freedom of movement, although Corbyn has said free movement will by definition end with Britain’s exit from the EU and any future system must not allow exploitative working practices.

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes, one of the letter’s authors, said Abbott and Corbyn had fought against racism and for workers rights their entire lives. He said:

Given this, I really can”t see why they would want to roll back on the right of workers to free movement.

But there’s pressure everywhere to surrender on this principle, and it’s absolutely critical that the Left of the labour movement fights back and pushes the other way.

Another of the letter’s co-authors, Sahaya James, a member of Momentum’s ruling national coordinating group, said Corbyn had “a record of standing up to the tabloid narrative on things like immigration.” James said Momentum did not have an official position on Brexit or free movement, but said the vast majority of members were in favour of free movement. She said:

I can guarantee that a huge bulk of members and activists are in favour of defending free movement and fighting for migrants’ rights. It’s not enough to sit around and wait for Jeremy to come out with policies - the left needs to wake up and make its voice heard on this.

The full letter can be read here.

Rees-Mogg says Major's speech 'riddled with errors and humbug'

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory Brexiter, told BBC News that Sir John Major’s speech was “riddled with errors and humbug”. He said:

You would expect John Major, a former prime minister, to make a statesman-like speech free of propaganda and cheap comments, but in fact it is all cheap comments and propaganda.

This isn’t a statesman-like speech. This is one of somebody grubbing around in the weeds for weak arguments. It is a very poor speech.

I think he should go back, do his homework and try and make a statesman-like speech rather than one riddled with errors and humbug.

The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn has posted on Twitter a copy of a letter that David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has sent to Tory MPs about today’s draft withdrawal treaty published by the EU.

DD's 'dear colleague' letter to nervous Tory MPs today on the Withdrawal Agreement legal text row. In short; don't worry folks, we're holding the line;

— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) February 28, 2018

Pro-Europeans have warmly welcomed John Major’s intervention.

Open Britain, which is campaigning for a soft Brexit, released this response from the Labour peer and former European commissioner Lord Mandelson.

This is a seismic speech which no voter should ignore and every member of parliament should heed.

John Major has stripped away every fig leaf, exposed every lie and revealed the truth about the unmitigated disaster that the government’s Brexit deal would be for our country.

A former prime minister has offered the government a way out of the mess they have made. They should take it.

MPs should get a free vote on Brexit, so they can put country before party. parliament should take its responsibility and reject any deal that will damage our country and then give back to the people the final vote on the Brexit deal.

From the Lib Dem Brexit spokesman Tom Brake

John Major is right, the deal must go back to the people.

This is the biggest issue facing the nation in over half a century. This deal will define our future. We have one chance to get this right and yet Theresa May is fighting to keep the final say in the hands of her inner circle.

Theresa May must put her trust in the public. Whatever deal she comes back with, the people must be given a voice. The UK must have a chance to exit from Brexit.

(Actually, this is a misreading of what Major said. Major made it clear that his preference was for parliament not take the final decision. See 2.43pm.)

And Best for Britain, the group fighting Brexit, has put out this statement from the Labour peer Lord Adonis.

Sir John Major is a very distinguished former prime minister who knows all too well the dishonesty that the Brexiteers in his party deploy in pursuit of ideology.

His warnings today - about the threat that Brexit poses to our economy, to our security and to the enduring peace that was his own legacy in Northern Ireland - can not be dismissed. Sir John’s speech highlights a stark and unavoidable fact, the Leave campaign did not win on the basis of this chaos, disruption and destabilisation. They won, just, on a false prospectus. The truth is they cannot deliver on any of their promises.

The only way forward, as Sir John implies, is to give the British people their final say on the realities of Brexit. We need a referendum on the realities of Brexit, not the fantasies of its proponents. That must be the focus of all democrats from now on.

At the afternoon lobby briefing Theresa May’s spokesman refused several invitations to give any thoughts on John Major’s speech. May herself had not watched it, he said, as she was hosting a modern slavery taskforce event at No 10.

Asked if the timing of the speech – two days before May’s own set piece Brexit speech – was helpful, the spokesman said: “He is perfectly entitled to make his views known at his time of choosing.”

As my colleague Alan Travis reports, the government has sneaked out (“sneaked out”, because it coincides with a particularly busy Brexit news day) an announcement showing that the government has backed down on the issue of the rights of EU nationals coming to the UK during the transition.

As Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said in his press conference yesterday, and again today (see 11.43am), this was one of the areas of dispute between the UK and the EU holding up an agreement on the transition.

Here is Alan’s story.

Scotland’s most senior law officer, the Lord Advocate James Wolffe, has just given a statement to the Scottish parliament saying that the Scottish government’s alternative to the EU withdrawal bill will be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

Yesterday both the Scottish and Welsh governments issued emergency legislation or “continuity” bills to prepare for leaving the EU in a significant escalation of their dispute with UK ministers over their powers after Brexit.

The measures are intended to transfer EU regulations directly into Scottish and Welsh law if the three governments fail to agree a deal next month on how those powers are shared out after Brexit.

Subsequently, Holyrood’s presiding officer Ken Macintosh announced that he does not believe the bill currently falls within the Scottish parliament’s remit.

Saying that there was no precedent for his statement, Wolffe said that his analysis reflects the approach of the supreme court in the Gina Miller case, and that he does not believe the bill breaches UK obligations under EU law.

Brexiters accuse Major of hypocrisy because he never gave Tories free vote on Maastricht

The Tory/Brexiter backlash against John Major has started.

This is from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

Senior brexiteer source-‘Instead if taking back control John Major - who handed over our veto- wants to keep it in Brussels. This speech is full of extraordinary hypocrisy from a terrible PM whose predictions in the referendum have already been proved wrong’

— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) February 28, 2018

These are from the Telegraph’s Steven Swinford.

Cabinet source on Sir John Major:
‘It is extraordinary hypocrisy from a useless PM whose predictions in the referendum have already been proved wrong and who now wants to overturn the referendum just like Tony Blair'

— Steven Swinford (@Steven_Swinford) February 28, 2018

INCOMING! Jacob Rees-Mogg accuses Sir John Major of 'grubbing around the weeds for cheap arguments'. Says it's 'propaganda'

— Steven Swinford (@Steven_Swinford) February 28, 2018

And Guido Fawkes has a full quote on his blog from the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg said:

Did John Major give a free vote on Maastricht? This is where he really is guilty of being a complete humbug. He whipped that through in the most aggressive whipping in modern history. For that PM to then say ‘oh it should be a free vote’, is either forgetting how he behaved himself, ignoring how he behaved himself, or just straight forward hypocrisy.

Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images


Q: Aren’t you worried that, if parliament were to take responsibility for this decision back, having contracted it out to the people, that might generate more bitterness?

Major says this was supposed to be about restoring parliamentary sovereignty.

And he suggests voters are sometimes inconsistent. He says some people said at the time they wanted to leave the EU but stay in the single market.

Also, people change their minds, he says. He says David Davis said if you cannot change your minds, you are not a democracy.

He says in a democracy you cannot just ignore the views of the 16m who voted against, and opt for a hard Brexit.

Both sides need to be willing to compromise, he says.

And that is it. The Q&A is over.

I will post reaction and analysis shortly.

Major says we have learnt a lot from the continent. During the referendum he met someone in his old Huntingdon constituency. The person told Major he was a European, while he was a proper Anglo-Saxon. “So where do you think Saxony is?” Major asked him. He says we all migrants in our ancestry.

Major says he does not decry the concern there is about immigration.

It has put great strain on services in some parts of the country.

But EU migrants are overwhelmingly here because they bring a skill we need.

He says he hopes the government can find a solution that allows this sort of immigration to carry on.

Major says many EU nationals coming to the UK do not stay for good. They bring their skills when they are needed, and then leave.

Major says staying in the customs union could be the only solution to Irish border problem

Q: Do you think what the EU is proposing today is acceptable? And is that what Theresa May signed up to? And what do you think about Boris Johnson’s congestion charge idea?

Major says he will not comment on Johnson, on the grounds that “I’d still like to be a seen as a serious politician”.

He says the EU document was only published as he was on his way to this speech. But from what he knows of it, he does not think it is “an idea that will fly” in parliament, he says.

He says the UK, morally and politically, is under an obligation to find a solution to this. But, apart from staying in the customs union, he cannot think of one.

  • Major says staying in the customs union could be the only solution to the Irish border problem.


Major says the chances of the UK being able to have its cake and eat it are “between nil and zilch”.

Q: What would happen if there were another referendum and it were close?

Major says that, if it were won by one vote, the matter would be settled, as far as he is concerned. “We’ve got to draw a line under [this],” he says.

He stresses that he would prefer parliament to take the final decision.

But if there were a referendum, he would have no truc with the argument that it should be “the best of three”.

Q: What do you say to people who think the warnings made remain in the referendum have not come to pass and hence will not take you seriously?

Major accepts that is an issue. Some people in the campaign over-egged the threats, he says, when they were talking about long-term economic impacts.

But now almost all experts say Brexit will be bad for the economy, he says.

Personally, he is rather in favour of experts. If he has to have a tooth pulled, he would rather go to someone who has done it before, he says.

Major says Brexit will hurt people “at the bottom of the heap” first.

Q: As PM you complained about people undermining you. So why are you undermining the PM? And will you quit the party?

Major says he has no intention of quitting the party he has belonged to since he was 16. He says he is trying to put the party on the right course. And he points out that he hardly mentioned Theresa May in his speech.

Q: Why are you so sure that Theresa May will not be able to get what she wants?

Major says when he was negotiating Maastricht, he had leverage. The EU needed his vote to get the reforms it wanted. And, when Margaret Thatcher got the veto, she had leverage. It took her five years to get the rebate. She only succeeded when the EU wanted to enlarge its budget, and needed British money.

Those circumstances don’t apply, he says. Theresa May does not have that kind of leverage.

Q: What is your message to pro-European Tories?

Major says MPs have a responsibility to their party. But they have a responsibility to their constituents too. He says it is now likely that people will be worse off under Brexit.

Q: Do you think the Northern Ireland problem is soluble?

Major says there is no more complex problem in the talks than the problem of Northern Ireland. That was obvious from the start. But some people who should have known better denied this was a problem. The can was kicked down the road, he says.

He says staying in a customs union would solve the problem, he says.

But he says the extraordinary improvement in peace in Northern Ireland is a significant prize.

And people may not think trade with Ireland is that important. But the UK does more trade with Ireland than with South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand put together, he says.

Major says, if business were to speak out against Brexit, that would have a “significant impact on public opinion”. He thinks business leaders have been too reluctant to speak out.

Major's Q&A

Major is now taking questions.

Q: Are you calling for a second referendum?

No, says Major. He says he thinks parliament should decide. He is not in favour of referendums. But he says parliament should have the option of voting for a second referendum.

Q: Has Theresa May handed the keys of Number 10 to Jeremy Corbyn?

No, says Major. He says under a different leader Labour would be 15 points ahead. He does not think the public want Corbyn as prime minister.

Major says MPs should get free vote on final Brexit deal, with 2nd referendum or halting Brexit both options

Major goes into more detail about what he means by parliaement having the final say.

I spoke earlier of the “divisiveness” of Brexit across our United Kingdom. But, in due time, the debate will end and – when it does – we need the highest possible level of public acceptance for the outcome. It is in no-one’s interest for the bitterness and division to linger on.

I see only one way to achieve this.

It is already agreed that Parliament must pass legislation giving effect to the deal. A “meaningful vote” has been promised. This must be a decisive vote, in which Parliament can accept or reject the final outcome; or send the negotiators back to seek improvements; or order a referendum.

That is what Parliamentary sovereignty means.

And he says there should be a free vote.

But, to minimise divisions in our country – and between and within the political parties – I believe the government should take a brave and bold decision. They should invite parliament to accept or reject the final outcome on a free vote.

I know the instinct of every government is to oppose “free votes”, but the government should weigh the advantages of having one very carefully. It may be in their interest to do so.

There are some very practical reasons in favour of it.

Brexit is a unique decision. It will affect the lives of the British people for generations to come. If it flops – there will be the most terrible backlash.

If it is whipped through parliament, when the public are so divided, voters will know who to blame if they end up poorer and weaker. So, both democracy and prudence suggest a free vote.

The deep divisions in our nation are more likely to be healed by a Brexit freely approved by parliament, than a Brexit forced through parliament at the behest of a minority of convinced opponents of Europe.

A free vote would better reflect the reality that – for every 17 voters who opted for Brexit – 16 opted to remain in the EU.


Major says parliament should take the final decision.

We have ruled out full membership. Ruled out the single market and customs union. Ruled out joining the European Economic Area. Dismissed talk of joining EFTA.

A Norway deal won’t do. Nor will a Swiss deal. Nor a Ukraine deal; a Turkey deal; or a South Korea deal. No, to them all, say the government’s “red lines”.

So, little is left, except for “cherry picking” – which the EU rejects. Or a comprehensive deal – which will be very hard, if not impossible, to get. So compromise it must be – or no deal at all.

It is now widely accepted that “no deal” would be the worst possible outcome. The compromise must, therefore, focus around our accepting single market rules (as Norway does) and paying for access.

Or an enhanced “Canada deal” – and it would need to be enhanced a very great deal to be attractive. The Canada deal largely concerns goods – whereas the bulk of UK exports are services.

But what we achieve to protect our interests may depend on what we concede: it is, as I say, “give” and “take”. If our “red lines” dissolve, our options enlarge. Our minimum objective must be that “deep, special and bespoke” trade deal the prime minister has talked about.

So, some unpalatable decisions lie ahead – with the cast-iron certainty that the extreme and unbending Brexit lobby will cry “betrayal” at any compromise. But it is parliament, not a small minority, that must decide our policy.


Major says voters should get the chance to think again

Major says voters should get the chance to think again.

Although the referendum was advisory only, the result gave the government the obligation to negotiate a Brexit. But not any Brexit; not at all costs; and certainly not on any terms. The true remit can only be to agree a Brexit that honours the promises made in the referendum.

But, so far, the promises have not been met and, probably, cannot be met.

Many electors know they were misled: many more are beginning to realise it. So, the electorate has every right to reconsider their decision.


Major turns to Northern Ireland.

The prime minister is seeking a “frictionless” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. She is absolutely right to do so. This is a promise that must be honoured, and I wish her well. But, so far, this has not materialised – nor, I fear, will it – unless we stay in “a” or “the” Customs Union.

Those of us who warned of the risks Brexit would bring to the still fragile Peace Process were told at the time that we “didn’t understand Irish politics”. But it seems we understood it better than our critics. We need a policy to protect the Good Friday agreement – and we need one urgently. And it is our responsibility to find one – not the European Union.


Major says nearly all promises made by Brexiters have been broken.

It is not my purpose to stir controversy, but the truth must be spoken.  The ultra Brexiteers have been mistaken – wrong – in nearly all they have said or promised to the British people. 

The promises of more hospitals, more schools, lower taxes, more money for transport were electioneering fantasy.  The £350 million a week for the NHS was a ridiculous phantom:  the reality is if our economy weakens – as is forecast – there will not only be less money for the NHS, but for all our public services. 

We were told that nobody was threatening our place in the Single Market.  That tune has changed.   

We were told that a trade deal with the EU would be easy to get.  Wrong again:  it was never going to be easy, and we are still not sure what outcome will be achieved.     

We were told “Europe can whistle for their money” and we would not pay a penny in exit costs.  Wrong again.  Europe didn’t even have to purse her lips before we agreed to pay £40 billion to meet legitimate liabilities.

I could go on.  But suffice to say that every one of the Brexit promises is – to quote Henry Fielding – “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine to which (there is) but one objection:  namely, that it is not true.”.

People should pause and reflect:  if the Brexit leaders were wrong in what they said so enthusiastically before – are they not likely to be wrong in what they say now?

Major says Brexiters are wrong to advocate leaving the single market.

Leading Brexit supporters believe there is nothing to fear from losing our special access to the single market.

But that is profoundly wrong. Swapping the single market for WTO rules would mean our exports facing the EU external tariff, as well as hidden non-tariff barriers that could be adjusted to our disadvantage at any time.

A minister has speculated we might face tariffs of 3%. Not so.

It is more likely that we will face tariffs on cars (10%), food (14%), drinks (20%), and dairy products (36%). Even if a successful negotiation were to halve these tariffs, our exports would still be much more expensive to sell – and this would apply far beyond agriculture and the motor industry.

And if, in retaliation, the UK were to impose tariffs on imports, this would result in higher prices for the British consumer.

If we and the EU agreed to impose nil tariffs – as some have speculated – WTO rules mean we would both have to offer nil tariffs to all countries. That isn’t going to happen.

This is all very complex. But it is crucial. And none of it has yet been properly explained to the British people.


Major says only fear of Corbyn is protecting Tories from 'haemorrhage of business support'

Major says the government is losing business support over Brexit.

Alarmed at the negotiations so far, the financial sector, businesses, and our academic institutions, are pleading for commonsense policy to serve the national interest and now – fearful they may not get it – are making their own preparations for the future.

Japanese car-makers warn they could close operations in Britain unless we maintain free access to the EU. That would be heart-breaking for many people in Sunderland or Swindon or South Wales.

This isn’t “Project Fear” revisited, it is “Project Know Your History”.

Any doubters should consult the former employees of factories, now closed, in Bridgend, Port Talbot and Newport, where jobs were lost and families suffered. In 1991, employment by Japanese firms in Wales was about 17,000 people: today, it is 2,000. If free access to Europe is lost – that scale of impact, across the UK, could lose 125,000 Japanese jobs.

Over many years, the Conservative party has understood the concerns of business. Not over Brexit, it seems.

Across the United Kingdom – businesses are expressing their wish to stay in the single market and customs union. But “No”, say the government’s “red lines”.

Businesses wish to have the freedom to employ foreign skills. “No”, say the government’s “red lines”.

Business and academia wish to welcome foreign students to our universities and – as they rise to influence in their own countries – we then have willing partners in politics and business for decades to come. “No”, say the government’s “red lines”.

This is not only grand folly. It’s also bad politics.

The national interest must always be above the Party interest, but my Party should beware. It is only fear of Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell that prevents a haemorrhage of business support.


Major explains what a good Brexit would be like.

A good Brexit – for Britain – will protect our trade advantages, and enable us to: 

 –        continue to sell our goods and services without disruption;

 –        import and export food without barriers and extra cost;

 –        staff our hospitals, universities and businesses with the skills we need – where we most need them;

 –        be part of the cutting edge of European research, in which British brains and skills lead the way;

 –        continue with the over 40 FTAs we have with countries only as a result of our membership of the EU.

He says government aims are “tilted to ultra Brexit opinion”.

Major says government's negotiating aims 'just not credible'

Major goes on to criticise the government’s stance in more detail.

We simply cannot move forward with leaving the EU, the single market, the customs union and the ECJ, whilst at the same time expecting à la carte, beneficial-to-Britain, bespoke entrance to the European market.  It is just not credible.

A willingness to compromise is essential.  If either side – the UK or the EU – is too inflexible, too unbending, too wedded to what they won’t do – then the negotiations will fail. 

The very essence of negotiation involves both “give” and “take”.  But there are always “red lines” that neither side wishes to cross.  In successful negotiations those “red lines” are traded for concessions.   

 If our “red lines” are held to be inviolable, the likelihood of no deal – or a poor deal – increases.  Every time we close off options prematurely, this encourages the EU to do the same – and that is not in our British interest.   


Major criticises the handling of the Brexit negotiations.

Our negotiations, so far, have not always been sure-footed.  Some agreements have been reached but, in many areas, only because the UK has given ground. 

Our determination to negotiate the divorce bill and a new trade deal at the same time was going to be “the fight of the summer” – but instead became an immediate British retreat. 

There was to be a “points based” immigration system.  There isn’t, and there won’t be. 

We were to become the “Singapore of the North”.  No more:  we have retreated from a policy of lower taxes and de-regulation.   

No transition period was going to be needed.  But we have now asked for one – during which we will accept new EU rules, ECJ jurisdiction, and free movement of people. 

I don’t say this to be critical.

I do so to illustrate that unrealistic aspirations are usually followed by retreat.  That is a lesson for the negotiations to come.

They will be the most difficult any government has faced.  Our aims have to be realistic.  I am not sure they yet are. 


Major says Brexit has already hit the economy.

The UK has been at the very top of European growth.

We are now the laggard at the bottom.  We have become the slowest of the world’s big economies, even before we surrender the familiar advantages of the single market.  

Major says government will have to change course if it becomes clear Brexit will make UK poorer

Major says Brexit will make the country poorer. The government must change course, he says.

I want us to be richer, not poorer.  Yet every serious international body, including the IMF, the OECD, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research – as well as Nobel prize-winners – forecast we will be poorer outside the EU. 

Such forecasts could be wrong, but to dismiss them out of hand is reckless.  

Our own government has assessed our post-Brexit position upon three separate criteria:  that we stay in the Single Market;  or reach a trade deal with Europe;  or fail to do so. 

Each option shows us to be worse off:  and disastrously so with no trade deal at all.  And the poorest regions will be hurt the most.

If, as negotiations proceed, this analysis appears to be correct, that cannot be brushed aside.  I know of no precedent for any government enacting a policy that will make both our country and our people poorer.  Once that is apparent, the government must change course.


Major goes on about the effect of Brexit on the UK’s standing.

For decades, we British have super-charged our influence around the world by our closeness to the US (which policy divisions are lessening); and our membership of the EU (which we are abandoning).

As a result, we are already becoming a lesser actor. No‑one – leaver or remainer – can welcome that.

We are all urged to be “patriotic” and get behind Brexit. But it is precisely because I am patriotic that I oppose it.

I want my country to be influential, not isolated; committed, not cut-off; a leading participant, not a bystander.


Major says Brexit has already diminished the UK’s international stature

Major says people have started to think Brexit won’t be too bad.

In recent weeks, the idea has gained ground that Brexit won’t be too bad; that we will all get through it; that we’re doing better than expected – and all will be well.

Of course we will get through it: life as we know it won’t come to an end. We are too resourceful and talented a nation for that. But our nation is owed a frank assessment of what leaving Europe may mean – for now and the future.

I fear we will be weaker and less prosperous – as a country and as individuals. And – although it grieves me to admit it – our divorce from Europe will diminish our international stature. Indeed, it already has.

  • Major says Brexit has already diminished the UK’s international stature.


Major says parliament must consider the will of the people, but also “the well being of the people”.

It has been the most divisive issue of his lifetime, he says.

Brexit has been the most divisive issue of my lifetime.  It has divided not only the four nations of our UK, but regions within them.  It has divided political parties;  political colleagues;  families;  friends – and the young from the old. 

We have to heal those divisions.  They have been made worse by the character of the Brexit debate with its intolerance, its bullying, and its name-calling.  I welcome rigorous debate – but there must be respect for differing views that are honestly held. 

 In this debate there are no “remoaners”, no “mutineers”, no “enemies of the people” – just voices setting out what they believe is right for our country.

John Major's Brexit speech

Sir John Major, the Conservative former prime minister, has just started giving a speech on Brexit to the Creative Industries Federation.

He says he is not a Europhile or a Eurosceptic. He says:

I am neither a Europhile nor a Eurosceptic. As prime minister, I said “No” to federal integration, “No” to the Euro Currency, and “No” to Schengen – which introduced free movement of people within the European Union but without proper control of external borders.

But I am a realist. I believe that to risk losing our trade advantages with the colossal market on our doorstep is to inflict economic self-harm on the British people.


Irish deputy PM says 'hard to see' how UK can avoid hard border if it leaves customs union

Ireland has warned that it would be “hard to see’ how Theresa May can deliver on her promise of an invisible border in Northern Ireland if the UK leaves the customs union and the single market. 

The deputy prime minister has  warned that it would be “hard to see’ how the prime minister can deliver on her promise of an invisible border in Northern Ireland if the UK leaves the customs union and the single market.

Simon Coveney was audibly exasperated during an interview on Irish radio pointing out Ireland had “supported” Britain’s desire to move to phase 2 talks in December ​because of the very guarantees it had agreed on the Irish border. 

Nobody is looking to pick a fight, nobody’s looking to have a go at the British government,” he said on RTE's News at One. ​

“The problem here is the British government’s stated position, [in December] and still now, is they want to  make sure there is no border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and Ireland, they don’t want trade​ barriers between Northern Ireland and the UK and that the UK is leaving the customs union and the single market and those things are simply not compatible.

“It’s hard to see that being done if the British government continues to pursue leaving the customs union and the single market; it’s hard to see how you avoid border structures in that kind of context,” he said. 

"Our response is, look, this [option C] doesn't have to be the solution but come up with something better that we can agree and we'd be delighted to agree," he said. "We are trying to protect the status quo which is also protecting the Good Friday agreement in terms of north-south co-operation."

Coveney’s remarks comes amid accusations that the EU is using the Northern Ireland border to issue to force May to stay in the customs union and the single market. 

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier faced a barrage of questions on the matter at a briefing in Brussels with British press asking him if he was not “meddling” with Britain’s constitution by forcing Northern Ireland to stay in the customs union as a workaround to the Irish border issue. 

Coveney said Britain had to move fast to come up with an alternative solution.

“We have to see an approach coming from the British government that allows for trade between the EU and UK that’s doesn’t allow borders and that solves the problem for Northern Ireland which was agreed in December,” he said. 

Simon Coveney.
FILE PHOTO: Ireland's Minister of Foreign Affairs Coveney attends an informal meeting of EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Tallinn
FILE PHOTO: Ireland's Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney attends an informal meeting of European Union Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Tallinn, Estonia September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo
Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

According to the BBC’s Philip Sim, Michael Russell, the Scottish government’s Brexit minister, has called for Boris Johnson to be sacked.

Mike Russell says what he read of Boris Johnson's views on Brexit last night was "difficult to believe" - if Foreign Secretary "seeks to abrogate an international treaty in order to pursue his own very warped views of what the UK should do", Theresa May "should be firing him"

— Philip Sim (@BBCPhilipSim) February 28, 2018

In the Commons Gregory Campbell, the DUP MP for East Londonderry, says he lives closer to the Irish border than any other MP. He says it would be impossible to introduce a hard border in Ireland anyway because, with the border being so long, residents would easily find a way of circumventing it.

Labour and the SNP have both criticised the government for its handling of the Brexit talks with the EU.

Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said:

The EU-UK government war of words needs to end.

There can be absolutely no deviation from the solemn commitments made to Northern Ireland at the end of the first phase of Brexit negotiations. That means no hard border or any agreement that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

Theresa May’s failure to offer any viable solution to the border in Northern Ireland has come back to haunt her.

And Stephen Gethins, the SNP’s foreign affairs and Europe spokesman, said:

The UK government’s response to the EU’s withdrawal agreement has shown the chaos consuming Downing Street, given that the draft should contain no surprises for the Tories as the terms were discussed and agreed in the December negotiations.

We are fully 20 months on from the EU referendum, and it is beyond belief that the UK government is immobilised by incompetence and incapable of reaching a position amongst themselves on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Labour’s Stephen Timms asks if cameras count as infrastructure. Is there any example of a border anywhere in the world with no customs union and no infrastructure?

(He is trying to get a clearer answer to the question posed by Yvette Cooper. See 1.15pm.)

Lidington says the joint report in December is clear; it says there should be no associated infrastructure.

This is what the Press Association has filed about the May/Corbyn exchanges at PMQs.

Theresa May accused Labour of betraying Britons over Brexit as she faced calls to put the country ahead of her cabinet’s “oversized egos”.

The prime minister attacked Jeremy Corbyn’s latest policy after he confirmed the opposition will back a “new and comprehensive” UK-EU customs union to ensure tariff-free trade.

But the Labour leader hit back, insisting May is “incapable” of delivering a “coherent and decisive plan” for Brexit due to divisions in her government.

He also questioned Boris Johnson’s remarks over the Irish border, to which the PM insisted she and the foreign secretary are “absolutely committed” to ensuring there is no hard border.

Brexit dominated the leaders’ exchanges at PMQs for a second successive week, having barely featured in previous outings.

Speaking in the Commons, May said she was left confused by Corbyn’s speech on Labour wanting to “negotiate a new comprehensive customs union”.

She said: “That would mean that we couldn’t do our trade deals and actually it would betray the vote of the British people.

“In the next sentence he said he wanted a customs arrangement meaning we could negotiate our new trade deals - well that’s the government’s position, so what’s he want to do - let down the country or agree with the government?”

Corbyn, rising to ask his first question, took aim at Mrs May’s Brexit day and asked her to tell the country what “ambitious managed divergence” will mean.

He later said he understood May would make a Brexit speech on Friday and raised concerns of businesses and for the health service.

Corbyn pressed the PM to outline which sectors of the government want to remain aligned and which they plan to diverge.

Some opposition MPs shouted at May to question why she was making a separate speech outside parliament, which prompted the PM to say: “Just calm down.”

The PM said she had already set out the government’s position and would elaborate later in the week.

Corbyn criticised May for her “endless round of after-dinner speeches” on Europe and later attacked the government’s record on training health workers, adding it “doesn’t seem to understand it takes eight years to train a doctor”.

He said they were also “completely oblivious” to 100,000 vacancies in the NHS, adding: “I suggest some members get a life and go and visit a hospital and see just how hard those people work in order to cover for the vacancies that are there.”

Turning to the Irish border, Corbyn noticed Johnson was shouting at him and joked: “He’s obviously mixing up the border with the Camden-Islington border.”

May, in her reply, told MPs: “He said it takes eight years to train a doctor - well, if he’s worried about the number of doctors there are now, eight years ago it was a Labour government that was deciding how doctors were going to be trained.”

On the border, she said: “The foreign secretary and I are absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“That’s the position of the UK government, it’s the position of the parties in Northern Ireland, it’s the position of the Irish government and it was what we agreed in the December agreement of that joint report.

“We are all committed to ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”


Labour’s Vernon Coaker asks why Boris Johnson spoke about the possibility of a hard border in Ireland in his letter when the government has repeatedly rule this out.

Lidington says government policy is as it has been set out.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory Brexiter, says the Irish economy, and particularly its agriculture, will be devastated if there is a hard border in Ireland. Has the government pointed that out to the Irish prime minister?

Lidington says Ireland is actively trying to find a solution to this problem.

Theresa May to make Commons statement on her latest Brexit plans on Monday, MPs told

John Bercow, the speaker, says he has been told that Theresa May will make a statement to MPs about Brexit policy on Monday. That will be the moment when she updates the Commons on the plans she is setting out in her speech on Friday.

  • Theresa May to make Commons statement on her latest Brexit plans on Monday, MPs told.

Lidington says EU draft withdrawal treaty does not fully reflect what was agreed in December

The SNP’s Joanna Cherry asks Lidington to confirm that what is in the draft treaty published today is “exactly” the backstop that Theresa May agreed to in December.

Lidington says Michel Barnier himself has said that the text out today is just a first draft.

He says there will be no cherry picking.

It is important for the final draft to reflect “all the paragraphs” in the joint report agreed in December (pdf). He says, from what he has seen of the draft text so far, it does not do that.

  • Lidington says EU draft withdrawal treaty does not fully reflect what was agreed in December.

Boris Johnson reneges on promise to publish his private letter about Irish border

Labour’s Chris Leslie asks when the Foreign Office will publish the Johnson letter, as Johnson promised would happen this morning.

Lidington replies: “We don’t publish internal government correspondence.”

  • Boris Johnson reneges on promise to publish his private letter about the Irish border.

Back in the Commons Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the Commons home affairs committee, says Boris Johnson compared border checks in Ireland with the congestion charge. But cameras in London are in built-up areas, she says. And she says there has been a long history of people between the people of inner and outer London.

Northern Ireland is different, she says. She says there were four attacks on police officers last year, 58 shooting incidents and 33 bombing incidents. She says the Police Service of Northern Ireland has said that any infrastructure on the border would be under threat. Will the government rule out installing cameras at the border?

Lidington says the government is committed to no physical infrastructure at the border.

(That does seem to imply no cameras, unless the government is planning something involving hidden, micro-cameras.)

And this is what Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader at Wesminster, said about the draft EU treaty. He said:

I think the initial reaction is one of amazement that the EU thinks that these kinds of proposition both on the jurisdiction of the European court of justice and particularly on the Northern Ireland border issue could fly with either us or the British government.

.@NigelDoddsDUP asked for his response to the EU draft text a short time ago.

— DUP (@duponline) February 28, 2018

DUP leader says draft EU withdrawal treaty would be 'economically catastrophic' for Northern Ireland

Here is Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, on the draft withdrawal agreement.

EU draft text is constitutionally unacceptable & would be economically catastrophic for Northern Ireland. I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment that HMG will not allow any new border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland must have unfettered access to GB market. AF

— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) February 28, 2018

Ken Clarke, a Conservative, asks if Lidington thinks it will just be up to the UK to decide how regulatory alignment in Ireland works.

Lidington says, when the UK leaves the EU, EU law will no longer apply.

Lidington says the government is looking at how it will keep the border in Ireland open. Theresa May will say more in her speech on Friday, he says.

Thornberry accuses Johnson of perpetrating a “deception” about Ireland

Thornberry is responding.

She says it is a “disgrace” and discourtesy to the Commons that Boris Johnson is not here to answer the UQ himself, particularly since he gave an interview in the snow earlier.

She quotes Johnson telling her in the Commons that he stood by his referendum claim that the border in Ireland would remain unchanged.

But last night his letter was leaked. It speculated about a hard border being introduced.

The letter shows that Johnson accepts the need for changes to the current border arrangements, and the needs for checks.

Thornberry says Johnson should know by now you cannot he half pregnant.

What is the truth? Will there be border checks or not?

And how can you have border controls without cameras? Is this just another fantasy, she asks.

She welcomes the fact Johnson has said he will publish his letter.

How would Johnson’s proposed “invisible border” work in practice?

She says Labour’s view is that the only way to avoid a border is to stay in the customs union.

She says ministers are saying one thing in private, and another in public, and it is “about time this deception is ended”.

  • Thornberry accuses Johnson of perpetrating a “deception” about Ireland. She says he is saying one thing about the Irish border in public, and another in private

Urgent question about Boris Johnson's leaked letter about the Irish border

Labour’s Emily Thornberry asks the question.

David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister, is responding.

He says the government will not accept anything that undermines the constitutional integrity of the UK, or that creates a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

PMQs is over.

There is jeering in the chamber - I think from Labour MPs complaining about Boris Johnson leaving, and not staying to respond in person to the urgent question about his letter about the Irish border.

Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, used his first question to ask about devolution and Brexit. May replied:

Of course I continue to stand by wanting to ensure that all parts of the UK continue to flourish, I think the best way of doing that is ensuring all parts of the UK remain in the UK.

Then Blackford asked about Boris Johnson’s letter about the Irish border. He said:

The foreign secreatry’s leaked letter shows he can’t get to grips with one of the most fundamental issues of Brexit. The foreign secretary compared crossing the Irish border to going between Camden and Westminster. Frankly you could not make this stuff up.

This is a UK government prepared to put in jeopardy the Good Friday agreement. Does the prime minister agree with her bumbling foreign secretary, who is making the UK a laughing stock?

May said she was committed to the Belfast agreement.

I’ve taken the quotes from PoliticsHome.

Simon Hoare, a Conservative, asks May to confirm the Good Friday agreement is safe in her hands.

May says this year marks its 20th anniversary. She remains committed to it.

Anne Main, a Conservative, asks if May is concerned about the links Max Mosley has with Impress, the press regulator, and some leading politicians. (She means Tom Watson.)

May says some people will have been surprised by Mosley’s links with some politicians. She says the press must be free to shine a light on abuses. While she is prime minister, that will never change.

Labour’s Frank Field asks May to stop a proposed cut for the victims of modern slavery.

May says she is not aware of the details of this, but DWP will look at this.

Philip Davies, a Conservatives, asks about women being discriminated against by Sharia councils. Feminists do not talk about this, he says. Isn’t it time this was ended?

May says there is only one law in the UK. As home secretary she set up a review of Sharia courts. It has recently been published, and the Home Office will respond shortly.

Labour’s Liz Kendall asks about the explosion in Leicester. Will May also pay tribute to residents who have pulled together to support each other?

May expresses condolences to the family and friends of those killed. She is happy to pay tribute to local residents. Everything will be done to get to the bottom of why this happened, she says.

Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards says Wales will be a “vassal country” under the government’s Brexit devolution plans.

May says she does not agree. She says the government wants EU powers being repatriated to go to the devolved administrations.

Labour’s Ian Mearns asks about youth unemployment in the north east.

May says the apprenticeship levy is intended to ensure that there are more opportunities for young people.

James Brokenshire, the Conservative former Northern Ireland, back in the Commons after cancer treatment, says early diagnosis is crucial. Will May ensure an early check programme is promoted widely? And will she tackle the stigma around lung cancer.

May says she is delighted to see Brokenshire back. He is right about early diagnosis. She says people should realise that, if they have the slightest doubt about something, they should get it checked out. Many men particularly resist this, she says. Early diagnosis can make an enormous difference, she says.

Labour’s John Grogan asks if May will support Yorkshire councils trying to get an all-Yorskhire devolution settlement by 2020.

May says the government has agreed a city deal with Sheffield city region. She hears what Grogan is saying, and the communities secretary recently met Yorkshire councils to discuss this.

Rachael Maclean, a Conservative, asks May if she agrees that it is the Conservatives who deliver most for women.

May says she is happy to celebrate international women’s day.

PMQs - Snap verdict:

PMQs - Snap verdict: Corbyn’s Brexit speech on Monday clarified the divide between Labour and the Tories on this topic, and this may explain why today he sounded more confident than before tackling May on this topic. Her attempt to rubbish the new Labour position in response to an early planted question didn’t quite hit home, and so the Corbyn/May exchanges felt very much like a score draw, shedding little light on policy, but covering quite a lot of ground. Corbyn’s point about business groups having more credibility on the needs of business than Liam Fox (a doctor, before he became an MP) was good and well put, and he was effective too on recruitment vacancies in the NHS. But May had fairly decent responses, and her argument about eight-year timetables for doctor recruitment meant that, when she parried Corbyn with a reference to the last Labour government, for once it sounded as if she had a point. Corbyn’s best moment probably came when he mocked Boris Johnson, and his best question was the one about how May can square with what she is saying now about not having a hard border in Ireland with Johnson’s private letter suggesting that he clearly sees this as an option. But he did not push this charge repeatedly or aggressively, and it ended up feeling like a key attack line that didn’t get fully exploited.

Corbyn says, if that is the case, why is Boris Johnson writing to May proposing the opposite. This is a government in disarray. All we get are soundbites. We had ‘Brexit means Brexit’, then ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, then ‘liberal Brexit’, then “ambitious, managed divergence’.

May says the government is giving people optimism. Corbyn would betray voters, and let the public down.

Corbyn says the government has cut nurse bursaries. The government does not understand that it takes eight years to train a doctor. And there are 100,000 vacancies in the NHS. We should give immediate reassurance to NHS workers in the NHs, he says.

He says Boris Johnson said recently a hard border in Ireland was unthinkable. As Johnson jeers, Corbyn says he is obviously mixing it up with the Camden/Islington border. Can May confirm she will keep the Irish border open.

May says the December agreement included assurances for EU nationals in the UK. On nurses, she says there are more nurses now than before. And if Corbyn says it takes eight years to train a doctor, then eight years ago it was a Labour government in charge.

On Ireland, she says the government is committed to having no hard border.

Corbyn says Fox thinks groups like the CBI are wrong. But maybe they have got more of a clue than he has.

Can May say where the UK will remain aligned, and where the UK will diverge.

May says she will be making a speech later. She makes a peculiar “Urgh” sound as MPs jeer, and says “just calm down”. She says she wants to ensure trade does go across borders, and that there is no hard border.

She says Labour does not have a clue about business. It wants to borrow £500m.

Corbyn says health and social care is already suffering badly. It is reliant on migrant workers. Isn’t May concerned the health workers are leaving the UK in unprecedented numbers?

May says the latest immigration figures show there are still more people coming in from the EU than leaving. The government wants to improve opportunities for people in the UK to work in the NHS.

Jeremy Corbyn starts by paying tribute to those killed in the Leicester explosion.

He says May promised “ambitious, managed divergence” after Brexit. What on earth does that mean?

May also pays tribute to the work of the emergency services in Leicester.

On Brexit, she says she wants to deliver on the wishes of the British people to get control of borders, laws and money. Labour wants the opposite, which would be a betrayal of the British people.

Corbyn says 94% of small and medium-sized business say the government is ignoring their concerns. Who is best at representing the views of businesses? He lists three business groups, and offers Liam Fox as an alternative.

May says the Federation of Small Businesses backs the government position.

The Conservative MP Ranil Jayawardena asks May to explain the difference between a customs union and a customs arrangement.

May says the government wants to be able to negotiate its own trade deals. She says Corbyn said he wanted that, but he also wanted to be in a customs union.

Labour’s Paul Blomfield asks about Sheffield Young Carers, a group that helps young carers. Will Theresa May meet them?

May says there are many young people caring for their parents who all too often go unseen and unheard. The government plans to publish a plan to help them, he says.


PMQs is about to start, so I’m turning away from the Barnier press conference.

Here is the list of MPs down to ask a question.

Here is the list for today’s #PMQs - first up @PaulBlomfieldMP

— PARLY (@ParlyApp) February 28, 2018

My colleague Lisa O’Carroll has tweeted what the draft treaty says about Ireland.

Here are the two pages on Ireland

— lisa o'carroll (@lisaocarroll) February 28, 2018

Q: In December the whole divorce agreement almost fell through. You must be aware of how explosive this is. Do you want to shock the UK into action?

Barnier says he is familiar with the UK political situation. But there are complicated situations in other EU states.

He says it was the UK that decided to leave the EU, unilaterally. And it initiated the exit in March, with the article 50 letter. And it was Theresa May who set the date for Brexit. We are 13 months away.

He says he respects the UK and its citizens.

He says we need a treaty, one that is legally binding and valid. He is not talking about just warm words.

Q: Do you not accept it is inevitable, that if the regulatory alignment backstop measure is approved, a border will be established in the Irish sea?

Barnier says he does not accept that.

He says there is no certainty the backstop will be used.

He says he hopes they will find a solution under the first option (a new trade deal).

Q: Are you trying to force Theresa May to stay in the customs union? Or are you trying to force a border between Britain and Ireland, which could topple her government?

Barnier says he knows the constitutional order of the UK, and respects that.

But he is trying to find solutions, he says.

He is trying to take a “calm and pragmatic” approach to this subject.

Barnier says his attitude is keep calm and be pragmatic.

Barnier's Q&A

After his opening statement Barnier is now taking questions.

Q: The protocol on Northern Ireland would change the territorial status of Northern Ireland. That is unacceptable to any UK government. So isn’t this protocol worthless? What’s the point?

Barnier says he does not understand the question.

.@MichelBarnier: I'm prepared to discuss solutions A and B, we are waiting. But our responsibility to citizens North and South, the GFA, at the time of the signing of the Withdrawal AGreement we need an operational solution.

— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) February 28, 2018

.@MichelBarnier: my responsiblity is that we have a proposal for a functioning agreement. We have done this is a practical, pragmatic, legal fashion.

— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) February 28, 2018


Barnier says transition not inevitable because 'too many' differences between EU and UK

Barnier says there are “significant divergences, too many divergences” on transition issues.

He will mention two. First, the UK wants to give EU nationals arriving in the UK during the transition different rights from those here before. This is a “major issue” for the EU, he says. He says the EU thinks they should be treated fairly, in the same way as those in the UK earlier.

Second, the UK is asking for the right to oppose new EU rules coming into force during the transition. He says the EU does not agree. That would create the risk of regulatory divergence, he says.

He says, for these reasons, “the transition is not a given”.

  • Barnier says there are “too many” differences between the EU and the UK on the transition.
  • He says the transition “is not a given” as a result.

Barnier announces fresh round of EU-UK talks next week

Barnier says there are no surprises in the text on the other separation issues.

He says the EU’s position on the ECJ has not changed. The EU thinks the ECJ should play a role wherever the withdrawal agreement refers to EU law.

That is the EU position, he says.

Having a draft text will make it easier to speed up talks.

He says the UK and the EU have agreed to hold a round of talks next week.

  • Barnier announces fresh round of EU-UK talks next week.

Barnier says the EU is willing to discuss all three options in the joint report in parallel.

He will meet Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, early next week, he says.

On Ireland, Barnier says the points in the draft treaty have been agreed with the EU.

He says the joint report agreed in December (pdf) included, in paragraph 49, three options for dealing with the border issue.

The first related to a trade deal. But that will not be in place at the time of Brexit.

The second related to specific proposals to simplify border arrangements. The EU has not had those yet.

The third involves regulatory alignment. It is the backstop solution, he says.

He says the EU has applied imagination and creativity to find a solution to the threat Brexit poses to Irish border arrangements.

He says the EU’s approach is focused on areas where it is necessary to avoid border checks. Daily life around the border should continue as today.


Barnier says all financial commitments undertaken by the EU28 will be respected.

And the Irish border will be protected, he says.

Barnier says Brexit talks need to be accelerated

Barnier says he has three points to make.

First, if Brexit is going to happen, we need to “pick up the pace”, he says. He says there are only 13 months to go before the UK is due top leave the EU.

  • Barnier says Brexit talks need to be accelerated.

He says the EU wants to work with the UK on a legal text, which will bring clarity.

Second, this is a draft, he says. He says he will only place it on the table with the UK once talks with the EU27 and the European parliament have concluded.

He says he is committed to transparency. This transparency is important.

He says the draft is based on legal principles and fact.

Third, he says the draft text contains no surprise for the UK. It expresses what was agreed in December.

But it does contain the EU view on issues where there has been no progress in talks since December.

And it includes the EU view on the transition, he says.

Barnier says the draft withdrawal treaty has just been published.

Here it is.

The EU draft legal text is now up on the Commission's website

— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) February 28, 2018

Michel Barnier's press conference

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, is holding a press conference in Brussels now.

You can watch a live feed here.

According to PoliticsHome’s Kevin Schofield, the Foreign Office is sending Mark Field, a junior minister, to respond to the UQ about Boris Johnson’s Irish border letter, not Johnson himself.

BREAKING: Boris Johnson will NOT be answering this UQ for the Government. Junior FCO minister Mark Field will be doing it instead.

— Kevin Schofield (@PolhomeEditor) February 28, 2018

Speaker grants Commons urgent question on Boris Johnson leaked letter on Irish border

John Bercow, the speaker, has granted a Commons urgent question on the Boris Johnson Irish border leak.

Breaking News: UQ granted to @EmilyThornberry summoning @BorisJohnson to the House straight after PMQs circa 1245

— Labour Whips (@labourwhips) February 28, 2018

Labour want Johnson to appear in the Commons to respond, but it is possible that he could send a junior Foreign Office minister in his place.


DUP MP accuses EU of wanting to 'annex' Northern Ireland and urges government to 'show some teeth'

At the Northern Ireland affairs committee the DUP MP Ian Paisley told Karen Bradley that the EU Was trying to “annex” Northern Ireland. He said he wanted the government to “show some teeth” and resist the EU. He told Bradley:

I’m appalled and disgusted at how the EU can dare to say that they want to annex a part of the United Kingdom and take it away from the governance of the rest of the United Kingdom. I’m delighted at what you said in your opening comments about how Northern Ireland will be treated in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom. [See 10.41am.] That’s absolutely critical going forward.

We are now facing the biggest test in the resolve of the character of this government, in terms of how they deal with the EU. And I wish you well, I wish the government well. But I would ask the government now to show some teeth now to the European Union that we will not be rolling over to their demands about annexing part of our country. And I want to leave that on the record with you and I want you to take that message back to the cabinet.

When Paisley talks about the EU wanting to “annex” Northern Ireland, that is his analysis of what option C in the joint report would amount to, as codified in the draft EU withdrawal treaty. (See 10.59am.)

Ian Paisley.
Ian Paisley. Photograph: Parliament TV

The FT’s Alex Barker has started tweeting extracts from the draft EU withdrawal treaty being published by the EU this morning.

Here we go -- the first article of Britain's exit treaty. More coming....

— Alex Barker (@alexebarker) February 28, 2018

The Protocol on Ireland is quite breathtaking in its level of detail. It establishes a "common regulatory area" between north-south, covering customs, VAT, energy, env, agri, product markets and more. This is the enforcement section -- full ECJ jurisdiction over Northern Ireland

— Alex Barker (@alexebarker) February 28, 2018

I’ve just called the Foreign Office to ask if they will be publishing the Boris Johnson letter about the Irish border, as Johnson said he would this morning. (See 9.26am.) They said they would get back to me ...

Bradley stresses that EU draft withdrawal treaty is 'not a final position'

And this is what Bradley said about the draft withdrawal treaty text being published by the EU today.

It is important to note that this is an attempt, an initial attempt, by the European Union to codify what option C, which is the fallback option if we are unable to resolve the border through the overall relationship or through the overall relationship in option B with some specific solutions recognising the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland.

And this is the EU’s document. It is not the British government’s document. The United Kingdom government has not had input into this document. And I look forward to seeing it. But it is not a final position.

Bradley says 'there will be no hard border' in bid to defuse Boris Johnson leak row

Here is the key quote from Karen Bradley on the border.

The British government stands resolutely behind the joint report of December ... That means that, as the joint report says very clearly, there will be no hard border. We have said that, the Irish government have said that, the EU have said that. No new physical infrastructure at the border. And that is north/south, but also east/west. So, to be absolutely clear, the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom is paramount and something that the United Kingdom government will ensure is what we achieve.

Andrew Murrison, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, starts by asking Karen Bradley to clarify the government’s stance on the Irish border.

Bradley says she cannot comment on leaked documents.

But the British government stands resolutely behind the joint report from December.

That means, as the joint report says, there will be no hard border. The UK government has said that, the Irish government have said that, and the EU have said that. That means no physical infrastructure at the border, she says.

She says she has not seen the EU document being published later.

But this will be “an initial attempt” to codify how option C - the fallback option, if other options do not work - could operate. It will be an EU document, not a government document. She goes on:

It is not a final position.

  • Bradley reaffirms government’s commitment to avoiding a hard border in Ireland.
  • She plays down significance of EU draft legal text, saying it is “an initial attempt” by the EU to draft a treaty and “not a final position”. And it does not represent the UK government’s position, she says.
Karen Bradley at the Northern Ireland committee
Karen Bradley at the Northern Ireland committee Photograph: Parliament TV


Karen Bradley gives evidence to Northern Ireland committee

Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, is about to give evidence to the Commons Northern Ireland committee.

The hearing is not explicitly about Brexit - it will focus mainly on the attempts to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland - but it would be odd if Brexit does not come up.

You can watch a live feed here.

I will be monitoring the hearing and posting highlights.

DUP accuses EU of using Irish issue to try to keep UK in customs union

Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, has accused the EU of trying to use the Irish border issue to keep the whole of the UK in the customs union. He told the Today programme that, of the three proposals in paragraph 49 of the joint report intended to ensure there is no need for a hard border in Ireland after Brexit, the EU was only interested in the UK government’s fallback one, regulatory alignment. Wilson said:

The EU have been trying to manoeuvre the negotiations to ensure that the United Kingdom as a whole stays within the single market and customs union and have been using - or abusing - Northern Ireland to try and bring that situation about.

It seems that the EU have made it quite clear that the only option they are interested in is regulatory alignment which would either remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, separate us from our main market and politically create an issue where we are separated from the rest of the United Kingdom, or else force the whole of the United Kingdom to stay in the single market and the customs union.

This is much the same as what Boris Johnson was saying, although Johnson did not make it explicit that he was referring to the EU. (See 9.05am.)

In this interesting Twitter thread Peter Foster, the Telegraph’s Europe editor, speculates about the Johnson leak being part of an operation to intensify pressure for the UK to remain in the customs union.

Parsing @faisalislam scoop of Boris Johnson saying in letter to May on Ireland the words: "Even if a hard border is re-introduced..." Boom. /1

— Peter Foster (@pmdfoster) February 27, 2018

Former Brexit minister David Jones says EU draft treaty proposals 'completely unacceptable'

On the Today programme David Jones, the former Brexit minister and a prominent Tory Brexiter, said that what the EU would be proposing in its draft withdrawal treaty today would be “completely unacceptable”. He told the programme:

What is proposed is that Northern Ireland should remain part of the customs union, it should effectively be part of the single market, and should, I understand, remain subject to the European court of justice. That effectively amounts to an annexure of Northern Ireland by the European Union ...

I think that it would be pretty catastrophic and I think that the European Union in actually proposing this is behaving wholly irresponsibly.

Boris Johnson's Sky interview about Brexit and Ireland - Summary

Here is a full summary of what Boris Johnson said in his post-run doorstep interview with Sky News.

  • Johnson, the foreign secretary, claimed that concerns about the Irish border were being exploited by those trying to “frustrate Brexit” and to keep the UK in the customs union. (See 9.05am.)
  • He defended the letter leaked to Sky News implying he would be willing to accept some form of hard border in Ireland. It was “a very positive letter”, he said:

What the letter says is that, actually, there are are very good solutions that you could put in place that would obviate, prevent any kind of hard border but would allow goods, people - people of course move totally freely anyway because of the common travel area - allow goods to move freely without let or hindrance whilst allowing the UK to come out of the customs union, take back control of our tariffs schedules, take back control of our commercial policy, take back control of our regulation. It is a very positive letter ....

The DUP, as far as I understand the matter, are worried about the possibility of an east-west border which would be necessitated by having a system on the island of Ireland that didn’t allow for some sort of verification of traders going north-south, but what the letter points out is that there are all sorts of ways of doing that without having a hard border.

I’ll put it online myself, how about that? I don’t have it now - but we’ll certainly do that.

  • He defended his comments yesterday about how the congestion charge showed how technology could minimise the need for border checks in Ireland after Brexit. Challenging the Sky reporter, he said:

I don’t know whether you have ever driven into the congestion charge zone from outside the congestion charge zone - have you? Do you slow down? Do you feel any let or hindrance? Do you check your progress? Do you brake? Do you?

When asked if this meant Ireland could expect a Transport for London-style border, he replied:

All I’m saying is there are solutions that we can envisage, we have got to be positive about this.

Boris Johnson outside his Carlton Gardens residence
Boris Johnson outside his Carlton Gardens residence Photograph: Sky News


Boris Johnson claims Irish border fears being exploited 'to try to frustrate Brexit'

It’s another big Brexit day and the EU is publishing its draft text of the withdrawal treaty setting the terms for the UK’s departure from the EU. It is based on the joint report (pdf) agreed in December but, while the joint report was agreed by London and Brussels, the UK government is gearing up to protest strongly about some aspects of today’s 120-page legal text. That is partly because today’s document in some respects just represents the EU’s opening bid for negotiation. But it is also an example of how intentional ambiguities in a 15-page political document (which allowed Theresa May to put one spin on the December agreement, while the EU interpreted it differently) get vapourised when that gets translated into legalese.

Here is our overnight story about the draft text.

The key sticking point is what to do about Northern Ireland, a problem exacerbated by the Sky News reporting last night on a leaked letter sent by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, to Theresa May suggesting that he would be willing to accept some form of hard border in Ireland - contrary to assurances given repeatedly by the government.

This morning Sky doorstepped Johnson outside his official residence at Carlton Gardens and, as he got back from a run in the snow, he gave them an interview, claiming that fears about the Irish border were being exploited by those who wanted to “frustrate Brexit” and keep the UK in the customs union. He said:

What is going on at the moment is that the issue of the Northern Irish border is being used quite a lot politically to try and keep the UK in the customs union - effectively the single market - so we cannot really leave the EU, that is what is going on ...

If I may respectively say so, I think that the particular problems around the Irish border are being used politically to drive the whole Brexit argument, and effectively to try to frustrate Brexit. I think there are better ways forward.

Johnson did not say whether he was accusing Brussels of exploiting the issue in this way, or soft Brexiters in the UK, or both of them.

He also ridiculed the “inverted pyramid of objections” being raised by his critics.

We can do this - we can come out of the customs union while solving the Northern Ireland border problem and we must not allow this great sort of inverted pyramid of objections to be built over this problem, which I think is eminently solvable.

The last time he used the phrase “inverted pyramid” in public was when he dismissed the claims that he was having an affair with Petronella Wyat as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. But they were true, and he ended up having to resign from the opposition front bench.

I will post more from his interview shortly.

Here is the agenda for the day.

10.15am: Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, gives evidence to the Commons Northern Ireland committee.

Late morning: Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, gives a press conference in Brussels as the EU publishes its draft text for the Brexit withdrawal treaty.

12pm: Theresa May faces Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs.

2pm: Sir John Major, the Conservative former prime minister, gives a speech on Brexit.

As usual, I will be covering breaking political news as it happens, as well as bringing you the best reaction, comment and analysis from the web. I plan to post a summary at lunchtime and another in the afternoon.

You can read all today’s Guardian politics stories here.

Here is the Politico Europe round-up of this morning’s political news from Jack Blanchard. And here is the PoliticsHome list of today’ top 10 must reads.

If you want to follow me or contact me on Twitter, I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

I try to monitor the comments BTL but normally I find it impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer direct questions, although sometimes I miss them or don’t have time.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter.



Andrew Sparrow

The GuardianTramp

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