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Brexit news latest: Free vote fiasco as Theresa May caves to Cabinet rebels

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 13/03/2019 Charlotte Edwardes, JOE MURPHY
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A weakened Theresa May was forced by her Cabinet to give a free vote to MPs and ministers on a Plan B for Brexit in the wake of last night’s shattering defeat of her own deal.

A senior government source said the Prime Minister had agreed that there will be a free vote on the “Malthouse Compromise”. However, it looked as if Mrs May was holding out against a free vote on another amendment that would rule out a no deal on any date.

In this morning’s Cabinet meeting, at least four Brexiteer ministers — Gavin Williamson, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox — demanded a free vote for MPs and ministers on the so-called Malthouse Compromise.

Related: Risk of no-deal Brexit 'has never been higher', EU warns

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Other ministers were said to be pushing for a free vote on an amendment put down by former Tory chairwoman Dame Caroline Spelman and Labour MP Jack Dromey that sought to go further than Mrs May by ruling out no deal on any date.

The chaos in Mrs May’s Cabinet erupted after a shattered Prime Minister told the Commons she would allow a free vote this afternoon for Tory MPs on a motion to rule out a no-deal Brexit on March 29, when Brexit is due.

Related: We can still force a no-deal, say hardline Brexiteers 

We can still force a no-deal, say hardline Brexiteers © Getty We can still force a no-deal, say hardline Brexiteers

But it soon appeared that Mrs May had opened a Pandora’s Box that quickly highlighted her ebbing authority. Mr Williamson warned of “severe consequences” for the Tories if MPs were barred from showing their support for the Malthouse blueprint, a form of managed no deal.

Astonishingly, as Cabinet began there was still no decision from No 10 on whether MPs and ministers would be allowed a free vote on any amendments.

In contrast to the confusion in Mrs May’s court, support was gathering behind a cross-party plan to take control and deliver a Plan B Brexit backed by both the Commons and the EU. In key developments:

The architect of a cross-party bid to bring in a pro-business exit deal declared: “We are ready.” Interviewed by the Evening Standard, Sir Oliver Letwin said he believes there is a cross-party majority for a Norway-style deal to leave the European Union while keeping full access to the bloc’s market of 500 million consumers.

David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Matthew Hancock standing in front of a building: Ministers leaving 10 Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting on March 13 (AFP/Getty Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Ministers leaving 10 Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting on March 13 (AFP/Getty Images)

In Brussels angry EU leaders demanded a “clear answer” about what Britain wants and were preparing to take a hard line if, as widely expected, the Prime Minister asks for a postponement of Brexit. “Please make up your minds in London, because this uncertainty cannot continue,” MEP Guy Verhofstadt said in the European Parliament.

Businesses hit out bitterly at the chaos and uncertainty created by the Government’s handling of Brexit. The Confederation of British Industry’s Carolyn Fairbairn protested on Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is no way to run a country.”

Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show: “I think we need a new prime minister and a general election.”

The disarray follows the second defeat by 149 votes last night of Mrs May’s Brexit blueprint after her DUP allies and 75 Conservative MPs rebelled.

Sir Oliver said he was “not surprised” by the numbers but was increasingly confident that MPs from across the Commons were ready to unite behind a pro-business alternative.

“I’m optimistic that we will get to an agreement of a majority of members of the House of Commons on a sensible deal, which is a form of Brexit that secures our prosperity and security and that can lead to our leaving by the summer,” he said.

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He said the crucial moment will come tomorrow when MPs are set to pass a backbench amendment allowing the cross-party group to take control of the Commons timetable and stage votes to assess the support for different plans. If it is necessary we are ready to use the Paul parliamentary devices that we have been ready to use before in order to make sure that the House has an opportunity to debate and vote on alternative solutions,” said Sir Oliver. “But I hope very much that that will not be necessary because I think the sensible thing would be for the Government ... to come forward with its own plan.”

In Brussels there was anger that Britain was still undecided with just 16 days to go until Brexit Day. Mr Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, called on the UK to put “queen and country” before party politics, appealing for certainty from the House of Commons.

He told MEPs in Strasbourg: “That is what we need and so I am against every extension, whether an extension of one day, one week, even 24 hours, if it’s not based on a clear opinion of the House of Commons for something. That we know what they want.”

He added: “Please make up your minds in London, because this uncertainty cannot continue. Not for us, not for Britain and certainly not for our citizens.”

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, one of the ministers who might have quit if asked to back a no-deal Brexit, told Sky News: “Leaving without a deal would be very bad for our economy, very bad for our security.”

Allies of Mrs May said they would support her in bringing her withdrawal deal back to the Commons for a third time next week. “TINA,” said one Cabinet ministers, using the acronym for Baroness Thatcher’s catchphrase There Is No Alternative.

David Cameron warned MPs that failing to rule out a no-deal Brexit would be a “disaster” for Britain.

The former prime minister said he backed Mrs May’s attempts to secure a deal but went on: “I think she should feel free to look at other alternatives for partnership deals in order to solve this problem.”

But Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said he would prefer a no-deal scenario to not leaving the European Union.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier insisted there will be no further offer from Brussels apart from the deal already on the table.

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