Desperate May tries new ‘halfway house’ tactic to get Brexit done

The UK parliament will vote for a third time on the Brexit divorce deal on Friday in the UK, the day the country had originally been due to leave the European Union.

But the government has been accused of political “trickery of the highest order” with the vote, which could seal both the future of the country and the fate of prime minister Theresa May.

Parliament will be asked to approve the Withdrawal Agreement, setting out the terms of Brexit, but not the accompanying Political Declaration, which sets the framework and aims for a yet-to-be-negotiated future trade and customs relationship between the UK and EU.

A vendor holds Union flags and whistles for sale near the Houses of ParliamentCredit:Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The Withdrawal Agreement has twice failed to pass parliament, defeated heavily by an alliance of Conservative Brexiters and opposition parties. But both previous times it was twinned with the Political Declaration.

An affirmative vote on Friday should be enough to trigger a delay of Brexit to May 22 instead of April 12. It could also be enough for Prime Minister Theresa May to go through with her promise to quit – a promise made on Wednesday in an attempt to get Brexit hardliners in her party on side, conditional on her deal passing the Commons.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority is hanging by a thread.Credit:Bloomberg

Andrea Leadsom, the leader of government business in the Commons, said it was “crucial we make every effort” to avoid the April 12 deadline, which will be the default unless the Withdrawal Agreement passes the Commons by 11pm Friday.

“I encourage this House to support the motion so we can leave the EU in an orderly way and give business and people the certainty they need,” she said.

Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox said the new tactic was “perfectly sensible and perfectly lawful”.

However the plan faced fierce opposition almost as soon as it was announced.

Andrea Leadsom, U.K. leader of the House of Commons.Credit:Bloomberg

Pro-Brexit Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen called it a “trap”, saying the absence of the Political Declaration made the problems with the deal, and the Irish “backstop” it includes, more severe.

“It seems like a legal nightmare for the government to do this,” he said.

The Northern Irish DUP have also indicated they will vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, over concerns that the “backstop” could lead to an effective indefinite trade border down the Irish Sea.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the deal still “posed an unacceptable risk to the integrity of the UK”.

Labour has also flagged its opposition.

Shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer said the new approach might not satisfy the terms of the EU treaty signed by the UK, and went against the express wishes of the EU.

He pointed out that, in January, the prime minister herself said “the link between [the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration] means the commitments of one cannot be banked without the commitments of the other. The EU has been clear that they come as a package.”

Under UK law the government cannot ratify its exit treaty with the EU until parliament passes both the Withdrawal Deal and Political Declaration.

Instead, the government would have to bring the Declaration back to parliament before May 22, or use new legislation or legal argument to establish that it didn’t have to.

Conservative Brexiter Mark Francois called the situation a “procedural mess”, and Labour’s Stephen Doughty said it “looks to me like trickery of the highest order”.

Labour’s Mary Creagh said the two Brexit documents were “two horns on the same goat and the goat cannot be divided”, and said the government’s move was an “extraordinary reverse ferret”, referring to the tabloid newspaper tactic of suddenly and unashamedly switching loyalties.

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