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MPs seize control of Brexit process by backing indicative votes amendment

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3/26/2019 Heather Stewart and Jessica Elgot
a man and a woman sitting at a table: Theresa May as she makes a statement on Brexit to the House of Commons on Monday. © PA Theresa May as she makes a statement on Brexit to the House of Commons on Monday.

MPs on Monday seized control of the parliamentary timetable for a series of “indicative votes” on the next steps for Brexit – but Theresa May declined to say whether she would abide by the outcome.

An amendment tabled by former Tory minister Oliver Letwin passed, by 329 votes to 302, defeating the government, as MPs expressed their exasperation at its failure to set out a fresh approach.

Government sources confirmed that three ministers resigned from government in order to back the Letwin amendment: foreign affairs minister Alistair Burt, health minister Steve Brine and business minister Richard Harrington.In all, a total of 30 Tory MPs rebelled to vote for it.

Harrington, has been outspoken in his warnings about the risk of a no-deal Brexit in recent weeks. accused the government of “playing roulette with the lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of people in this country” in his resignation letter.

The prime minister had earlier announced that she does not yet have the support to justify holding a third meaningful vote on her deal – but insisted she won’t hand parliament a “blank cheque” to decide what happens next.

After gathering Brexit-backing grandees at her country retreat of Chequers over the weekend and consulting DUP leader, Arlene Foster, and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on Monday, May concluded she could not yet win sufficient backing for her twice defeated deal.

The cross-party group – led by Letwin and Labour’s Hilary Benn – gave MPs a series of votes on the alternatives to May’s deal, such as a second referendum, softer Brexit or revoking article 50.

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EU leaders have handed Britain a Brexit delay to 22 May, if May’s deal is passed this week. Without parliament’s backing, she must return to Brussels before 12 April and set out an alternative plan.

After a weekend of lurid reports about ministerial walkouts and ultimatums, the prime minister appeared undaunted as she addressed the House of Commons on Monday, after telling her cabinet she still hoped her deal could win support.

May had earlier criticised the Letwin amendment, warning that the process of indicative votes could yield, “contradictory outcomes, or no outcome at all”, and set a precedent that would “overturn the balance of our democratic institutions”.

And despite failing to set out any alternative to her own, twice-rejected deal, the prime minister declined to say whether she would abide by the outcome.

“No government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is. So I cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this house. But I do commit to engaging constructively with this process,” she said.

Instead, May insisted she had not given up hope of bringing her deal back for a third vote, saying she would “continue to have discussions with colleagues across the house, so that we can bring the vote forward this week, and guarantee Brexit”.

Several Brexiters, including Jacob Rees-Mogg – who attended Sunday’s Chequers meeting – have signalled that they may yet support her deal, if the DUP backed it.

Downing Street also hopes the threat of what May called a “slow Brexit”, if MPs take over the process and demand a longer Brexit delay and a closer relationship with the EU, could convince more leave-backers to support her.

Slideshow by Reuters

Corbyn told the prime minister: “The government’s approach to Brexit has now become a national embarrassment.

“Every step of the way along this process the government has refused to reach out, refused to listen and refused to find a consensus that can represent the views of the whole of the country not just her own party,” he said.

During a highly-charged debate in the Commons, a string of senior backbenchers condemned what many argued was a deep political crisis.

“What on earth has happened to our pragmatism, our self-restraint and our common sense?” asked veteran Conservative MP Nicholas Soames. “Like many others, I have found myself truly distraught at the painful, difficult and intractable position in which our country finds itself.”

Controlling the parliamentary timetable is usually a key power of the sitting government; but MPs have been drawing up plans to step in, after May repeatedly declined to change course, despite her deal being roundly rejected on two occasions.

Defending the move, Tory rebel Dominic Grieve said parliament had been “prevented from doing its ordinary job,” by the “straitjacket” imposed by the government on parliament.

“Seeing that the government has run into the sand, and has had its deal rejected, we have got to find an alternative,” he said. “There should be nothing that is forbidden to be discussed.”

The prime minister had earlier suggested to her deeply-divided cabinet that she hoped to hold a third meaningful vote on Tuesday.

She then spoke to Foster, in the hope of securing the party’s support for her deal – which she hoped would help win over Tory Brexiters.

But DUP sources insisted following that call that their “position remains unchanged”. Foster’s deputy, Nigel Dodds, later reacted with fury in the Commons, when May said the suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly in Stormont was one reason that a no-deal Brexit would be so damaging.

In her statement to MPs, May came closer than in recent days to ruling out a no-deal Brexit, after last week’s European council meeting agreed to an extension of the article 50 timetable.

She told MPs: “Unless this house agrees to it, no deal will not happen.” May had also opened the cabinet meeting by stressing the risks of a no-deal Brexit, amid fears among senior colleagues that she could embrace the idea, rather than accept a longer delay.

However, her spokesman afterwards insisted she had not intended to imply that she would never implement no deal; merely that MPs would be likely to seize the opportunity to avoid it.

“The point the PM was making is that the House has voted against no deal, and will take every opportunity to prevent no deal,” the spokesman said.

Supporters of indicative votes feared late on Monday night that they did not have the numbers to pass the amendment.

Both Letwin and Nick Boles told allies they feared that remain-backing ministers would need to resign in order to pass the amendment.

“We’re a bit worried and currently weighing up whether Tory frontbench resignations may be necessary,” one MP said after a group meeting at 5pm.

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