Tory split warnings a ‘hollow threat,’ says former party chair

Rumors of party divisions may sell newspapers, says Caroline Spelman, but talk of a Tory rupture is ‘premature.’

LONDON — Brexiteer warnings that the Conservative Party could split if Theresa May tries to get her Brexit deal through parliament with Labour votes are a “hollow threat,” former party chairman Caroline Spelman said.

With no sign of concessions from the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop that might win round Brexiteer Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party, speculation is growing that May could make major changes to her Brexit plan, such as committing to a customs union, to persuade Labour MPs to back it.

However, several members of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs have warned that such a move could put serious strains on party unity.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has compared the scenario to that faced by 19th century Tory leader Robert Peel, who in 1846 split the party after repealing the Corn Laws (which protected British agriculture from foreign imports) with opposition votes. The split kept the party from winning an electoral majority for three decades.

But Spelman, a former Cabinet minister and party chairman whose amendment opposing a no-deal Brexit won a parliamentary majority last week, told POLITICO that talk of an historic rupture was “premature.” She said she wanted May to win concessions from Brussels on the backstop, but suggested that reaching out across the aisle could provide another way forward.

“Especially as a former party chairman I would like to see the party unite around a Conservative prime minister’s deal” — Caroline Spelman

“[Split threats] might sell newspapers, but in practice, new parties and party splits in my political lifetime have usually fizzled out,” said Spelman, who served as Tory party chair under David Cameron from 2007 to 2009.

Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it very difficult for small or new parties to get a foothold in parliament. For example, at the 2015 election, UKIP won nearly 3.9 million votes (a share of 12.6 percent) but won just one seat in the House of Commons.

Any Conservatives thinking of breaking away over concessions to Labour on a customs union would also struggle to explain how their position was consistent with the party’s 2017 election manifesto, Spelman added.

“It’s a hollow threat, because every Conservative MP was elected on a manifesto of finding a customs arrangement with the EU … No Conservative, whatever their allegiance on Europe, can deny the fact that they got elected on a promise to sort out a customs arrangement with the EU,” she said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has compared the current scenario to that faced by 19th century Tory leader Robert Peel | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty IMages

The manifesto says the party will leave the single market and the EU’s existing customs union, but commits to a non-specific “free trade and customs agreement” with the bloc.

Spelman said commitments that the U.K. would retain workplace and environmental standards at least as high as the EU’s, while looking again at the customs arrangements aspect of the deal, were “the kind of area … that might help bring a consensus behind the deal.”

However, she said her preferred option was for the House of Commons to back May’s deal and said she hoped the prime minister would succeed in her “quest for an amendment on the Irish backstop” to persuade Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP to back the deal.

“Especially as a former party chairman I would like to see the party unite around a Conservative prime minister’s deal,” she said. However, she said May might not succeed in persuading Brexiteers and the DUP, so supported talks which have taken place “in parallel” with Labour and their union backers.

Spelman’s non-binding amendment urging the government against a no-deal Brexit narrowly passed by 318 votes to 310 with Labour support. A different amendment from Labour’s Yvette Cooper which would have given the House of Commons a mechanism to delay Brexit and actually prevent no-deal, was defeated 321 to 298, when some Labour MPs with heavily Leave-voting constituencies refused to back it.

“My amendment had the effect of bringing Jeremy Corbyn to the table — what it was designed to do really” — Caroline Spelman

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said after the vote that because Spelman’s amendment had passed he was prepared to meet with May, and has since sent a letter to the prime minister setting out Labour’s conditions for supporting the Brexit deal, including a permanent customs union with the EU.

“My amendment had the effect of bringing Jeremy Corbyn to the table — what it was designed to do really. That’s important because for some time he hasn’t been all that clear what it is he actually wants,” said Spelman, speaking the day before Corbyn sent his letter.

The former environment secretary did not rule out backing a Cooper-like amendment aimed at delaying Brexit, if one is put forward at a future date. She added that it was “not impossible” that a majority would back such a plan to delay Brexit “as the deadline approaches.”

However, she said she would prefer not to see a delay. “I represent a manufacturing region where we’ve already lost 7,500 jobs, Brexit-related, in the past 12 months,” she said. “Delay costs money, delay kills business. That’s the reason I’m not keen on delaying.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.


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May wins chance for last throw of Brexit dice

MPs voted to send PM back to Brussels to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

LONDON — Welcome to the Brexit hall of mirrors.

In the House of Commons Tuesday, MPs voted for a symbolic motion signaling their opposition to a no-deal Brexit, but against taking on powers to actually stop it. Theresa May won a majority to renegotiate her divorce deal, which the EU has said repeatedly it is not prepared to do.

The result: Britain is as confused about what will happen next as ever, with less than two months until it is supposed to leave the European Union. But a series of House of Commons votes Tuesday night leaves May with something to hold on to, at least. She defeated the Labour Party and the rebels on her own side — and has forced Jeremy Corbyn into finally accepting conciliatory talks on a way forward.

Having rolled the dice on a seemingly suicidal strategy to find a majority for something — anything — she won. Pyrrhic or not, with the stakes as high as they are, any win will do.

The late-night parliamentary drama leaves the Brexit conundrum unsolved, but with Britain closer to crashing out of the EU with no deal. The pound dropped against the dollar and the euro as traders priced in the higher chance of a chaotic crash-out for Britain from the bloc.

MPs continue to prove themselves unable of coalescing into the “substantial and sustainable” majority which the prime minister claimed she had finally secured. 

The majority she won, Brexiteer backbench leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and co. were at pains to stress, should not be taken as support for her deal come what may. Their support is held in reserve, with few holding much hope that it is anything like stable.

The U.K. prime minister has gambled the last vestiges of her authority on winning legally-binding “changes” to the Withdrawal Agreement. A lot will rest over the next few weeks on what “change” looks like.

The stakes could scarcely be higher. 

“We are this close to being out of power,” warned government chief whip Julian Smith as he remonstrated with one recalcitrant backbench MP to support the government-backed “Brady amendment” (put down by senior Tory backbencher Graham Brady) calling for a renegotiated Northern Ireland backstop. He held his thumb and middle finger together to make the point.

The MP in question, the pro-European Justine Greening, shot back a volley of abuse, refusing to be moved.

Tensions were running high across the Commons. Two Tory MPs, out of view but in earshot of journalists in the press gallery overhead, could be heard bickering with each other over the slew of amendments being voted on after the six-hour debate on the government’s next steps.

“You keep saying we’re kicking the can down the road,” said one of the MPs who was backing the so-called Cooper-Boles amendment. That would have carved out parliamentary time for a new bill to force the government to apply for an extension to Article 50 should it fail to secure a deal by the end of the February. He then added: “But you are enabling the can kicking.”

In the end the Cooper-Boles amendment was defeated by 301 votes to 321, with 14 Labour MPs voting against. The MPs represent mainly northern English “Leave” constituencies and do not want to be seen delaying Brexit. MPs voted narrowly in favor of an amendment that rejected no-deal in principle, but it does not place any obligation on the government to act.

The next stage in the parliamentary drama is now February 13, when the prime minister has promised to return to the House of Commons with a new meaningful vote on the Brexit deal, which MPs will be able to amend.

In a statement released after their defeat Tuesday night, Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory MP Nick Boles, the chief sponsors of the amendment to delay Brexit, said MPs were “running out of time” to stop no deal. They pledged to return with new amendments should the prime minister fail to push through a compromise exit package in February.

The European Union reacted as most MPs expected: with hostility to the prospect of reopening the Withdrawal Agreement.

Speaking immediately after the votes, a spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk said: “The Withdrawal agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation. The December European Council Conclusions are very clear on this point.”

Tusk’s spokesman also expressed willingness to extend the March 29 deadline for the U.K.’s withdrawal.

“Should there be a U.K. reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 would stand ready to consider it and decide by unanimity,” he said.

From Dublin, a government statement reinforced the same message: “The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation.”

The reaction in parliament was more mixed.

Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Jnr said the vote gave the prime minister “the muscle to go to Europe and negotiate for us and we wish her well.” Asked if she would succeed, he replied: “She better.”

Former foreign secretary and leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson told POLITICO it was up to the prime minister to meet the demands of Tory MPs. “We will have to see what the PM delivers,” he said. “But she has got a very clear mandate from parliament to go back and get proper change to the backstop.”

Johnson was also skeptical about the EU’s reaction to the vote. “The truth is we haven’t ever properly asked for a different arrangement,” he said. “The PM has today voted against her own Withdrawal Agreement, she has decided to seek change to the backstop itself and she will have my full support in doing that, but obviously we have to see what she achieves and obtains and she will have to face a further vote to get that through.”

Others were less optimistic.

Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb attacked the “triumphalism” on display on the government benches for winning the Brady amendment, ordering the prime minister to renegotiate the backstop. “To me is a complete pyrrhic victory because it won’t actually achieve anything,” he said.

“I feel we are closer tonight to a disastrous no-deal than we have been until now, which I think is deeply disturbing. I think we are in a really serious situation now,” he added.

Labour’s Chuka Umunna, who supports a second referendum, attacked those MPs who say they are opposed to no-deal but did not vote to give parliament the powers to stop it. “You cannot claim to want to stop no-deal if you are not happy to will the means.”

He said by “throwing in the bin” the Cooper-Boles delay amendment, MPs had made a no-deal scenario “more, not less, likely.”

One Labour MP, who would not speak on the record, said there should be “consequences” for the Labour MPs who voted against the Cooper amendment, which the party leadership had formally backed. But the MP said that Labour rebels had been given a “nod and a wink” by the leadership that it would be okay to defy the party whip.

Theresa May attacks MPs seeking to delay Brexit

The UK prime minister said the actions could have ‘far-reaching and long-term implications.’

LONDON — Attempts by MPs to grant the House of Commons power to delay Brexit are “deeply misguided,” Theresa May said ahead of key votes on Tuesday evening.

The prime minister voiced “profound doubts” about the plans, put forward by Labour and Conservative MPs seeking to prevent the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal, and instead urged MPs to give her a “mandate” to renegotiate the controversial Irish backstop element of her Brexit deal.

MPs will vote this evening on amendments to a government Brexit motion. The outcome could shape the next steps in the U.K.’s path out of the EU.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper put forward an amendment allowing parliamentary time for backbench legislation which could give MPs the opportunity to extend the Article 50 negotiating period if the government has not won support for its deal by the end of February. Another amendment, put forward by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, creates additional parliamentary time for MPs to vote on Brexit even if the government is opposed to providing such opportunities.

May said that both amendments would see parliament “usurp the proper role of the executive” by overturning the convention that the government controls the business of the House of Commons.

“Such actions would be unprecedented and could have far-reaching and long-term implications for the way the U.K. is governed,” she said.

May is urging MPs to back a further amendment, put forward by Conservative MP Graham Brady, which calls for the Irish backstop — a guarantee for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland in all circumstances — to be “replaced by alternative arrangements.”

While not specifying what these would be, the prime minister said her plan would “involve reopening the Withdrawal Agreement” struck between the U.K. and the EU in November last year — something that EU leaders in Brussels and national capitals have repeatedly said they will not do.

“What I’m talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the Withdrawal Agreement,” May said.

The prime minister acknowledged that there was “limited appetite among our European partners” for this, but her approach won support from the Democratic Unionist Party’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds and leader of the leader of the Tory Brexiteer caucus Jacob Rees-Mogg.

May added that a compromise plan struck by a small group of pro-EU and Brexiteer Conservative MPs dubbed the “Malthouse compromise” after Tory MP Kit Malthouse  would be engaged with “seriously and positively.” It includes elements of a backstop plan that has already been rejected as unworkable by the EU.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.


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Theresa May will seek to reopen Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

‘Legal changes to the backstop will be required,’ says UK prime minister’s spokesperson.

LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told her Cabinet she will attempt to reopen the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement she struck with the EU last year to make legal changes to the Northern Ireland backstop plan.

Ahead of key House of Commons votes on Brexit Tuesday evening, May gave her full backing to an amendment put forward by Conservative backbencher Graham Brady, which would “require” the  backstop to be “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border.”

May’s government appears to be hoping the amendment will be selected by Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow and win majority support in this evening’s votes — thus allowing May to demonstrate to Brussels that changes to the Brexit deal could allow it be ratified by MPs.

“The prime minister said that in order to win the support of the House of Commons, legal changes to the backstop will be required. That will mean reopening the Withdrawal Agreement,” May’s official spokesman said, in a readout of Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

The spokesman said May is expecting to hold talks with EU leaders over the phone on Tuesday ahead of the votes in the House of Commons. EU leaders in Brussels and national capitals have repeated numerous times since the Withdrawal Agreement was finalized in November that it cannot be reopened, and that the backstop cannot be renegotiated.

The EU’s deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, speaking in Brussels on Monday, also said that the Withdrawal Agreement would not be reopened. She added that the design of the backstop was “very much shaped by the U.K.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves from 10 Downing Street in London on January 29, 2019, to head to the House of Commons | Daniel Leal Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

“There are now ideas floating around again — and it does feel like Groundhog Day — about a time limit to the backstop, or a unilateral exit clause from the backstop. Let me just reassure you, none of this is new. All of this has been extensively discussed at the negotiating table … all 27 heads of state and government [of the EU] and the leaders of the EU institutions were unanimous that a time limit to the backstop defeats the purpose of the backstop.”

May also told her ministers she would hold another House of Commons vote on the Brexit deal “as soon as possible.” If MPs reject it again, further votes on a government motion that could determine next steps will be held the next day. If a revised Brexit deal has not been brought before MPs by February 13, a similar amendable motion will be put forward for votes the next day, allowing MPs to put forward alternative plans.

May told Cabinet that another prominent amendment, put forward by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, would not get government support as it would merely “delay” government and parliament making a decision on Brexit.

The amendment, which would give MPs parliamentary time to put forward a bill that could extend the Article 50 negotiating period — delaying Brexit — will be backed by the Labour frontbench, the party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said Tuesday.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.


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Tory factions hatch Brexit compromise plan

But the plan looks highly unlikely to find favor in Brussels.

In a rare show of party unity on Brexit, elements from opposing “wings” of the U.K. Conservative party have pieced together a compromise plan that would include redrafting the controversial Irish backstop and a longer transition period.

Dubbed the “Malthouse compromise” — after Housing Minister Kit Malthouse, who brought together staunch Tory Leavers including Jacob Rees-Mogg and leading Remainers including Nicky Morgan — the plan aims to show that the Conservatives can, in fact, unite around a compromise to try to break the Brexit impasse.

The potential compromise is not among more than a dozen backbench amendments on how to break the deadlock in the House of Commons that have been put forward for a vote among MPs later Tuesday. Downing Street has thrown its weight behind an amendment from senior backbencher Graham Brady. It would instruct the prime minister to go back to Brussels and seek changes to the Northern Ireland backstop — the mechanism designed to avoid a hard border in all circumstances.

But if that amendment is not backed by parliament then the Malthouse compromise could become the focus for a governing party running out of time and options.

“Discussions have been going on for some days,” Morgan told BBC Radio’s Today program. “The prime minister has been aware of the discussions. At some point, there has to be compromise on all sides.”

EU leaders have said that there can be no transition period unless there is a Withdrawal Agreement.

She said the proposal would “recast the backstop as free trade agreement-lite … that would involve a commitment by all sides to have no hard border on the island of Ireland but allow trade to continue.”

In effect the plan — like the Brady amendment — would send May back to Brussels to try to renegotiate the backstop part of her Brexit deal, in time to leave the EU on March 29. If that fails, the U.K. would ask the EU to honor the transition period, extended if necessary, and Britain would pay Brussels the agreed £39 billion ‘divorce’ bill, and commit to guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights.

This would give both sides time to prepare for a Brexit on World Trade Organization terms at end-2021, or agree a new trading relationship.

Asked if this stood any chance of being welcomed by the European Union, Morgan said: “Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t know what the reaction is going to be. Parts of this have actually been discussed with the EU, but clearly not officially,” she added, without elaborating.

EU leaders have said repeatedly that the Withdrawal Agreement which was finalized in November cannot be reopened and the backstop cannot be renegotiated. The EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand repeated that message at an event in Brussels Monday.

“There will be no more negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement … We’re not going to reopen the agreement,” she said.

EU leaders have also said that there can be no transition period unless there is a Withdrawal Agreement.

Also on Today, prominent Brexiteer and former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the compromise was “frankly, the best hope that we’ve got … for a managed departure,” adding it could draw support from opposition Labour MPs “who are uneasy about what’s happening and recognize we need to leave, and also want to do it in a managed way.”

“We all have to make compromises,” Duncan Smith said, urging the government to get behind the plan.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was non-committal on the plan telling the BBC: “There are all sorts of ideas being put out, but parliament can’t take a decision unless that is on the order paper, and it’s not.”

“The government is open to listening to all ideas,” Fox added.


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Watch the latest Commons Brexit showdown like a pro

Here are the Brexit amendments you need to know about.

LONDON — This is how MPs take control of Brexit.

The next major Brexit showdown in parliament will happen Tuesday evening when a government motion relating to the Withdrawal Act must be debated and voted on.

The motion itself simply acknowledges that Prime Minister Theresa May has made a statement about her plan now that MPs have rejected her Brexit deal (she did that last Monday). But it matters because it is a parliamentary peg onto which MPs can hang amendments on issues of much more substance.

Depending on which amendments are selected by Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, these issues will then be debated and voted on, giving a clearer indication of the Commons’ will.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow | Jessica Taylor / U.K. Parliament via Getty Images

While these amendments cannot by law force the government to do anything, some of them propose altering House of Commons procedure, making time for votes or a new backbench bill that MPs hope will enable them to order the government to delay Brexit.

The government is backing Amendment N — put forward by Conservative 1922 committee chair Graham Brady — which calls for the Irish backstop plan for avoiding a hard border to be “replaced with alternative arrangements.” May is hoping that if it passes, it will be a clear signal to the EU that a variant of her Brexit deal can win around a majority of MPs if Brussels engages on the issue of the backstop.

Here’s your guide to some of the amendments put forward so far for Tuesday’s parliamentary showdown:

Amendment A: Labour’s plan 

The opposition Labour Party’s front-bench amendment requires time to be set aside for parliament “to consider and vote on options” to prevent the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal.

According to the amendment, these options should include a renegotiation with the EU to secure a permanent customs union, “a strong relationship with the single market” and “dynamic alignment” with the EU on workers’ rights and environmental standards. In other words, it lays out Labour’s broad-brush alternative Brexit plan.

Significantly, options listed also include “legislating to hold a public vote on a deal, or a proposition that has commanded the support of the majority of the House of Commons.”

This is another baby step from Labour toward enabling a second referendum, but is careful not to say whether the party would vote for that option were it eventually to be debated.

Having been proposed by the Labour leadership, even Remain-leaning Tory rebels will find this hard to support, meaning it is unlikely to be adopted.

Success rating: 1/5

Amendment B: The Cooper/Boles no-deal plan 

This amendment, spearheaded by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservatives’ Nick Boles, is attracting the most attention and early support. It’s complicated, but would require that on February 5, Standing Order 14 of the House of Commons — the rule which gives precedence to government business on the Commons timetable — would not apply.

This, the amendment says, would mean that the first item on the agenda for that day could be a business motion putting forward a new bill “in the name of at least 10 members, including at least four members elected to the House as members of at least four different parties.”

Yvette Cooper’s plan has been welcomed by the Labour frontbench | Leon Neal/Getty Images

MPs intend to use this bill to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit if the government doesn’t have a deal approved by February 26. As of Monday afternoon, it had 103 MPs backing it.

The Labour frontbench, whose support will be crucial if this amendment is to pass, have made positive noises. Jeremy Corbyn said in the Commons on Monday last week that his party would “back amendments that seek to rule out the disaster of no deal” and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told BBC Newsnight the next day that the plan is “sensible” and that it is “highly likely” Labour would back it.

Success rating: 4/5

Amendment F: Indicative votes

Backed by Brexit committee chair Hilary Benn and Labour colleague Seema Malhotra, this short amendment calls on the government to hold indicative votes on four options: May’s deal; leaving the EU with no deal; renegotiating the Brexit deal; holding a second referendum.

These votes would not be binding on the government but would be designed to flush out which is the most popular course of action among MPs.

Success rating: 2/5

Amendment G: Dominic Grieve hands power to MPs

It wouldn’t be a parliamentary battle over Brexit without an amendment from former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who has been at the center of much of the House of Commons’ effort to assert control over the Brexit agenda.

This one has some things in common with Amendment B. It would mean that Standing Order 14 (the one that allows government business to take priority) does not apply on February 12 and 26, and on March 5, 12, 19 and 26.

Dominic Grieve has been a key player in the parliamentary Brexit battle | Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

In place of government business, a motion from the chairman of ways and means (Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle, one of the speaker’s deputies) would be the first item of business on these days. It would state that the House of Commons has “considered the United Kingdom’s departure from, and future relationship with, the European Union” — and would simply be another parliamentary peg for MPs to add amendments and debate and vote on different options.

Grieve’s amendment, with its variety of dates for debates, is intended to give the House of Commons more than one shot at stopping no-deal Brexit and debating other options.

As of Monday afternoon it had 64 MPs backing it. The Labour frontbench’s position is not yet known.

Success rating: 3/5

Amendment I: Straightforward no to no-deal

Another popular amendment, but likely to be superseded by the Cooper/Boles proposal, this one from former Conservative Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey simply “rejects” the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal. As of Monday afternoon it was backed by 129 MPs. However, without instigating a legislative process (as the Cooper/Boles proposal does) it cannot become binding on the government.

Success rating: 2/5

Amendment N: The alternative to a backstop 

This amendment has attracted attention in recent days. Backed by many of the same people supporting Amendment B — including Chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee Graham Brady — it is an alternative route for Tory MPs to express their dissatisfaction with the backstop and simply states that it should be “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border.” It also explicitly says that anyone backing it wants to leave the EU with a deal and would back May’s deal if this change was made.

The wording appears to be specifically aimed at the EU and if it passes, could in theory be used by May to show Brussels that there is a route to a deal if it budges on the backstop. However, on Monday, many Conservative Brexiteers — dozens of whom would need to vote for it — dismissed it as too imprecise. They want specific commitments from the government vis-a-vis the backstop.

The European Research Group of Euroskeptic Tory backbenchers are not formally backing any of Tuesday’s amendments — but say they are willing to consider any government amendments that might be forthcoming.

Success rating: 2/5

This article is an abridged version of one published for Brexit Pro subscribers.

Theresa May backs push for ‘alternative’ to Brexit backstop

The prime minister will head back to Brussels for talks after a series of votes in parliament on Tuesday.

LONDON — The U.K. government will whip its MPs to vote in favor of a backbench amendment calling for the controversial Irish backstop to be “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border.”

MPs will vote on Tuesday evening on backbench amendments relating to the government’s Brexit strategy. It is not yet decided which of the 12 amendments will be selected for a vote. But the backstop amendment put forward by chair of the backbench Conservative 1922 committee Graham Brady will be supported by the government, party chairman Brandon Lewis said following a meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and her MPs.

Lewis added that the government will whip against another amendment, put forward by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, which aims to create parliamentary time for a bill to delay Brexit.

If the Brady amendment passes, May will “go out to Europe and negotiate with Europe about doing something on the backstop,” Lewis said. He did not confirm whether this would include reopening the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement which was agreed by London and Brussels in November.

EU leaders have said repeatedly that would be unacceptable, but Downing Street hopes that backing from MPs for the amendment would give a clear indication of what changes to the Brexit deal would be necessary to achieve House of Commons support.

It is not clear whether the amendment will garner enough support to pass, with many Conservative Brexiteers, including chair of the Euroskeptic European Research Group Jacob Rees-Mogg, saying they will vote against. Rees-Mogg said last night he wanted to see a “clear exposition of government policy.”

Many Brexiteers want more specific assurances that the backstop will either be stripped out of the Withdrawal Agreement entirely, given a defined end date, or be subject to a unilateral U.K. break clause.

May also told MPs that if another vote on a Brexit deal had not been held by February 13, the government would put forward another Brexit motion, allowing MPs to hold another round of non-binding votes on Brexit options, a government official said.

Two other amendments relating to the backstop, put forward by Conservative MPs Andrew Murrison and John Baron, have been withdrawn to give a better chance for Brady’s amendment to pass.

The amendment would be non-binding on the government and its language is similar to that already contained in the Withdrawal Agreement, which notes the U.K. and the EU’s “intention” to “replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border.”

The EU’s deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, speaking in Brussels on Monday, said that the Withdrawal Agreement would not be reopened. She added that the design of the backstop was “very much shaped by the U.K.”

“There are now ideas floating around again — and it does feel like Groundhog Day — about a time limit to the backstop, or a unilateral exit clause from the backstop. Let me just reassure you, none of this is new. All of this has been extensively discussed at the negotiating table … all 27 heads of state and government [of the EU] and the leaders of the EU institutions were unanimous that a time limit to the backstop defeats the purpose of the backstop.”


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Populism’s rising tide

Euroskeptics will shake up status quo at next European election.

Europe has withstood unprecedented shocks since the last European Parliament election in 2014 — a spate of terror attacks, a migration crisis, the erosion of rule of law.

And yet, as the next election day approaches, we are still asking the same questions we were asking the last time around: How high can the populist tide get? Have we reached the point at which divided factions that share a loathing for the European Union in its current form start to influence key appointments and policy?

The first is easy: EU citizens are poised to send more populists — from the left and the right — to Brussels than ever before. The second is unlikely, some say, because populists disagree too strongly among themselves to unite and are unlikely to reach a majority.

But it would be a mistake to assume that means their impact will be minimal.

If populists perform well in the May election, it will be much harder than it was in 2014 for the pro-European establishment to simply dust itself off and carry on.

The previous election took place shortly after the eurozone crisis, when countries were still going from bailout to bailout. Now, the official message from Brussels is that Europe is stronger. Significant gains for Euroskeptic parties will be harder to square with a positive story of the EU project.

At least three populist member-state governments — Italy, Poland and Hungary — will have much greater influence in the sense that they each choose a commissioner.

This will influence the game of musical chairs that follows the election. We already know from 2014 that national capitals won’t agree on how to interpret the result. Assuming the center-right European People’s Party comes first, it will push to nominate its Spitzenkandidat, the German politician Manfred Weber, as European Commission president. But on top of the EPP lead candidate’s lack of inspiring qualities, detractors of the Spitzenkandidat model, including many at the top of the German government, are likely to argue for a new approach.

To complicate the protracted battle for the Commission presidency, at least three populist member-state governments — Italy, Poland and Hungary — will have much greater influence than the minority of populist MEPs in the sense that they each choose a commissioner.

While it is likely these three will be kept away from essential portfolios, they will nonetheless be an awkward presence in an institution that isn’t great at handling internal dissent. Current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s ability to manage some of it came from his centralization of the institution’s decision-making process; a weaker president would be likely to struggle to keep the College of Commissioners’ deliberations harmonious.

Juncker speaks during a plenary session at the European Parliament. The next Commission president will likely have a tougher time managing the Commission | Frederick Florin / AFP via Getty images

The summer of configuring and reconfiguring the College will coincide with the reorganization in the European Parliament itself. Aside from the center-right and center-left groups, which will both sustain heavy losses, no other group has fixed political boundaries.

Depending on his party’s performance in France, French President Emmanuel Macron will be more or less able to impose his mildly protectionist policies on the centrist group, which usually focuses on being liberal in every sense. Hundreds of mini compromises are likely to be brokered among capitals and among MEPs to settle leadership and policy questions.

The same will be happening outside the mainstream. Right-wing Euroskeptics have until now been kept apart by the influence of Britain’s particular flavour of Euroskepticism, as well as by strategic competition, personality conflicts and other petty disputes.

While it is unlikely that a single right-wing populist group could form and overtake the center left to become the Parliament’s second-largest political force, it is not impossible. If that happens, such a group would in theory receive various privileges, including heavy committee representation and the right to hold the presidency of the Parliament for some of the term — something the rest of the Parliament would never grant.

Such incompatible demands will make for a very bumpy nomination process. Even once private discussions produce an initial College of Commissioners, would-be officials will be grilled by the Parliament’s committees and — just as mainstream MEPs will enjoy tearing into populist nominees — Euroskeptics will try to suggest conventional nominees are disconnected from reality.

When it comes time for a vote of confidence, it is possible the new Commission fails to win on the first try, delaying the start, potentially by some time, of the new Commission’s mandate.

It seems the EU is heading toward (at best) a more fragmented future or (at worst) a very long and slow unwind.

None of this will make for a good start to the much-needed European reboot, even if, this being Brussels, there will likely be enough votes for an EU-flavored compromise of some kind.

But the Europe to emerge from the election process will be on shaky ground.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel in succession mode in Berlin and Macron facing a state of national emergency and his domestic and European-integrationist reforms a dead letter, Europe’s most powerful champions are more inward-looking than ever before. Meanwhile, Italy and much of Eastern Europe are in the hands of politicians who want to claw back power from Brussels.

Add a more divided European Parliament into the mix, and it seems the EU is heading toward (at best) a more fragmented future or (at worst) a very long and slow unwind. In either case, the populists will have made their mark.

Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice.


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UK to warn of Brexit backstop’s threat to Irish peace treaty

The move could be the last throw of the dice for Theresa May’s deal.

LONDON — The Good Friday Agreement is about to be deployed in a last-ditch bid to keep Brexit on track.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is working on an audacious plan to maneuver the EU into giving legally binding guarantees on the Irish border post Brexit that she hopes will persuade her Democratic Unionist Party backers to support her Brexit deal.

Her bold gambit is to use one of the EU’s staunchest arguments — the need for an “all-weather” Northern Ireland backstop to preserve the Good Friday Agreement — against it. It follows accusations from DUP MPs and other leading unionists that the backstop itself contradicts the very historic peace agreement that it is designed to protect.

According to two senior U.K. figures familiar with the Cabinet’s internal discussions, May’s most senior advisers are working on a proposal to resurrect a key section of the original backstop deal reached over a year ago, but left out of the final agreement, to the DUP’s fury. The December 2017 “sufficient progress” agreement set the stage for phase 2 of the Brexit talks, which in turn led to the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by May’s government in November last year, containing the controversial backstop.

The plan could be the final roll of the dice for May’s Brexit deal, which was heavily defeated in parliament earlier this month. Despite promising after that defeat to look for cross-party compromise on the form of Brexit the government would pursue, the prime minister appears to have settled on doubling down on her original strategy of winning over the DUP and her Brexiteer backbenchers.

Last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond said he thinks the door is still open for changing the deal.

Making the backstop more palatable is crucial to that approach. But for that, the government needs help from Brussels.

Political horse-trading

Last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond said he thinks the door is still open for changing the deal. “They’re not prepared to compromise on the fundamental principles, but they certainly are looking at whether there is anything they can do without compromising those principles that would help,” he said in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

May will first wait until after Tuesday’s crucial parliamentary horse-trading, when MPs will vote on a series of proposals that the government hopes will send a message to Brussels about what the House of Commons is prepared to endorse. After that, Downing Street wants to restart talks with the EU.

“They [the EU] know they need to do something, but they are asking what do we want,” a senior U.K. official said. “We know we need to get the answer exactly right this time. Tuesday is the key.”

Arlene Foster’s DUP has given Theresa May difficulty over Northern Ireland | Olivier Hoslet/AFP via Getty Images

That’s when the plan to resurface the December 2017 deal will be deployed.

MPs from the DUP and senior Northern Ireland experts advising ministers claim paragraph 50 of the draft backstop agreement first thrashed out in 2017 reflected core provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which effectively gave Belfast a veto over further joint-working with the Republic of Ireland. However, this section was subsequently left out of the final Withdrawal Agreement, sparking fury in Belfast.

May is now planning to seek legally enforceable commitments from Brussels resurrecting paragraph 50 of the original backstop agreement, officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said. “Paragraph 50 needs to go back in,” said one senior U.K. official familiar with the prime minister’s thinking.

In a policy paper published Sunday, Paul Bew, a former adviser to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning unionist leader David Trimble, called on the U.K. government to get on the front foot over the Good Friday Agreement, accusing Dublin of “weaponizing” the accord.

Bew said: “In the interests of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, any Backstop arrangements which might be agreed primarily to protect the economy of the Irish Republic in a context of crisis can only be temporary … the UK cannot allow the Republic of Ireland’s government to unilaterally escape its obligations under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.”

The plan risks angering Dublin however, where it is seen as handing an effective DUP veto over a key part of the way the Brexit agreement would operate in future. That is “politically impossible” for either the Irish government or Brussels, according to one senior EU27 diplomat.

For all the changes, No. 10 wants legally watertight guarantees.

“It’s pretty desperate stuff,” the diplomat said, rejecting the claim that the backstop itself undermined the Good Friday Agreement. “It’s a bit rich. It’s something of the devil quoting scripture for his own benefit.”

Downing Street is alive to the sensitivities of invoking the Good Friday Agreement in its final showdown with Brussels and is working carefully to draw up proposals that stand a chance of being negotiable, while also acceptable to the DUP.

The 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party not only prop up May’s government, they are seen as the key to unlocking the support of Conservative hard-liners in parliament. If they fall into line then many backbench Brexiteers will also.

North-South cooperation

Paragraph 50 guarantees that the U.K. will ensure that no new regulatory barriers will develop between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, “unless, consistent with the 1998 [Good Friday] Agreement, [and] the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland.”

Leading Northern Irish unionists say this provision replicated a key element of the Good Friday Agreement that deals with areas governed on a North-South basis.

In the January 9 House of Commons debate about the proposed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the DUP’s Gavin Robinson made the case that the Brexit deal had diverged from this key principle.

“The rationale behind paragraph 50 was that it replicated paragraph 12 of strand two of the Belfast agreement [ie the Good Friday Agreement],” he said. “It is now impossible for the government to say that they implement and respect the Good Friday agreement in all its parts, because paragraph 50, and the parts of the Belfast agreement that I have referred to, do not feature at all in the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

The first area covered by the North-South provisions in the Good Friday Agreement is agriculture. But according to the backstop, as it is currently worded, agriculture will not be dealt with on a cross-border basis, but specifically by the EU without U.K. involvement. The U.K. government is seeking changes on that front.

The second area Downing Street wants to deal with to assuage DUP concerns is the regulation governing the food industry. Under the current Withdrawal Agreement, this is the one key area where Northern Ireland will enter a different regulatory environment to the rest of the U.K. (where it is not treated differently already).

Downing Street wants to change this so that Northern Ireland remains in lock-step with the rest of the U.K. This could potentially be done by the whole of the U.K. adopting EU agri-food regulations.

A third strand of the changes the U.K. is seeking to agree is a time limit on the backstop, but this remains highly contentious with Brussels. In any case, Downing Street hopes it may not be necessary to bring the DUP on board.

For all the changes, No. 10 wants legally watertight guarantees. “Something legally enforceable,” according to the senior U.K. official.

One option that has been discussed by Cabinet ministers and leading Northern Ireland experts is to push for the EU to make commitments under international law to honor the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, three people privy to the discussions said.

One leading Northern Ireland expert involved in advising Cabinet ministers said: “The DUP need international cover [but] we already have an international agreement: the Good Friday Agreement. We need to show that this will return as the structure for North-South cooperation as before. There needs to be something which shows fidelity to the Good Friday Agreement.”

The expert said the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands would do great harm to the Good Friday peace deal. “It’s pure balls that [the Withdrawal Agreement] is consonant with the Good Friday Agreement as it stands. All that is pure bullshit,” the expert said.

“An enduring backstop would do great harm to the Good Friday Agreement template,” which lays out the framework for North-South cooperation. “We cannot possibly agree to a long-term collapse of these principles,” the expert added.

The senior U.K. official said it is imperative for the U.K. to win a legally enforceable concession from Brussels to win back the support of the DUP — and with them potentially scores of Tory MPs.

“The DUP want to be able to say to their voters: ‘We made Theresa May make Leo Varadkar do this.’”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.


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Big parties’ power grab sparks outrage in European Parliament

MEPs to vote on plan to crack down on ‘fake groups.’

When is a group not a group?

Leading parties in the European Parliament want to tighten the rules on forming a group in the assembly in a move that anti-establishment politicians say is designed to deprive them of cash and influence.

Defenders of the proposal — put forward by the Socialists — say it is meant to end “fake groups” of parties that club together to get money and privileges from the Parliament but don’t vote together — or even meet up.

MEPs will vote Thursday on the measure, which could be significant in determining who wields power in the legislature, particularly in the next parliamentary term following May’s EU election.

The proposal is backed by leaders of the three biggest groups in the Parliament — the center-right European People’s Party, the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and the liberal ALDE. Ranged against it are smaller parties who would not normally be allies — Greens, Euroskeptics and populists. Some have threatened to take the measure to the European Court of Justice.

Under the measure — based on a parliamentary amendment drafted by German Social Democrat Jo Leinen and lawmakers from ALDE and the EPP — MEPs would be able to judge whether members of a group have sufficient “political affinity” if there is “manifest evidence that this affinity may not exist.”

“Democracy has always relied on protecting the rights of the opposition, primarily the right to propose and defend its own political alternative” — Fabio Massimo Castaldo, MEP from Italy’s 5Star Movement

Under Parliament rules, a political group needs 25 members, and they must come from at least a quarter of the EU’s member countries. The Parliament distributes 10 percent of its party financing equally among these groups. The remaining 90 percent is distributed according to each party’s share of MEPs. Big groups often get the most influential committee chair positions and more vice-president positions than smaller groups.

Fabio Massimo Castaldo, an MEP from Italy’s 5Star Movement, said the proposal reflected the “dictatorship of the majority,” which could “decide arbitrarily if it keeps alive or not political groups that are not aligned with the mainstream.”

“Democracy has always relied on protecting the rights of the opposition, primarily the right to propose and defend its own political alternative,” added Castaldo, who is also one of the Parliament’s vice-presidents.

Members of European Parliament take part in a voting session | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

The proposal offers neither a definition of “affinity,” nor any “objective parameter” on which to reach a decision, Castaldo complained.

The group to which Castaldo belongs, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, is precisely the kind of group Leinen and others have in their sights.

It is composed overwhelmingly of MEPs from the 5Stars and Britain’s UKIP. In 2016, the group got almost €3 million in funding from the Parliament, according to figures issued by the chamber.

But “they have not held political meetings together and voted against each other in a majority of cases,” Leinen said. “It is our duty to prohibit the misuse of taxpayers’ money.”

Both UKIP and the 5Stars present themselves as anti-establishment parties but there is much that divides them. In April 2015, Vote Watch, a service that provides analysis based on official data, found they had agreed with each other on only 27 percent of European Parliament votes. They voted differently, for example, on key counter-terrorism measures like the creation of the Passenger Name Record (PNR), which collects information provided by passengers on international flights.

The new proposal is contained in an amendment to a report drafted by British Labour MEP Richard Corbett revising the Parliament’s rules of procedure.

German MEP Jo Leinen | Jamal Nasrallah/EPA

Leinen’s amendment was initially stronger and more detailed. But he and his collaborators diluted the proposal with the aim of winning support from ALDE and the Greens. Liberal leaders are now on board but the Greens are still not convinced.

“We can ask ourselves questions about coherence inside groups,” said Philippe Lamberts, co-president of the Greens group. “But the S&D’s response to that creates more problems than it resolves.”


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