On the eve of a second showdown with MPs on her Brexit proposals, Theresa May receives an unexpected boost from Boris Johnson.
Only days after a surprise visit to Downing Street, Boris Johnson is predicting a Brexit fightback by Theresa May and a breakthrough in her battle with rebel Tory MPs in crucial Commons votes.
On the eve of a second showdown with MPs on her Brexit proposals, two weeks after her humiliating defeat by 230 votes, the prime minister has received an unexpected boost from Mr. Johnson.
After his Downing Street visit last week, it was reported that after long talks with government chief whip Julian Smith, Mr Johnson was close to backing Mrs May’s Brexit deal with a time limit on the Irish backstop.
In his Daily Telegraph column, he writes: “After two-and-a-half years of being pushed around in the playground of Brussels, we are turning, blinking, rolling up our sleeves, pushing our spectacles up our noses – and preparing to fight back.
“I have heard it from the lips of very senior sources in government – speaking with the authority, it is claimed, of the prime minister herself – that this country is about to seek proper binding legal change to the current lamentable withdrawal agreement.”
In his column, the former foreign secretary claimed the prime minister is planning to fight for a “freedom clause” from Brussels in a move he claims will win the “full-throated” support of the entire nation if she succeeds.
Image:Mr Johnson’s speech at a JCB factory was widely seen as a leadership bid
Describing the plans as “unadulterated good Brexit news”, he said an exit mechanism or sunset clause would “defuse the booby trap” and give the UK a “way out” to negotiate a Canada-style trade deal with the EU.
A Canada-style deal would mean most imported goods are free of tariffs, but there are additional customs checks. There is no free movement of people and no payments into the EU budget.
Mr Johnson’s dramatic intervention comes just 10 days after his speech at a JCB factory – widely seen as a leadership bid – in which he claimed Mrs May’s Brexit deal was “deceased” and urged her to return to Brussels.
But now he appears to be signalling that he is prepared to back a Commons amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, calling for the scrapping of the Irish backstop.
Ministers have also signalled that the government may back Sir Graham’s amendment, which is aimed at winning the support of the Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 MPs and the hardline Brexiteers of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News: “The impulse behind those who supported the Brady amendment I entirely understand and we need to look for a pragmatic solution.”
Asked if the government would back it, Mr Hancock said: “We’re talking to people. We don’t know which of the amendments will be selected by the Speaker.”
However, Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said there would be no changes to the withdrawal agreement and the backstop was crucial in preventing a hard border.
“Peace and the Good Friday Agreement are more important than Brexit,” he said.
“Even in a no-deal Brexit situation every party and every MP in the UK will have a responsibility to ensure there is no return to a hard border and Northern Ireland is protected.
“That won’t be easy and those who misrepresent the backstop don’t have an alternative to it.”
Education Secretary Damian Hinds also told Sky News that “we want to avoid, of course, a no-deal Brexit”.
Ahead of the Commons debate and votes, the prime minister is also facing further pressure to rule out “no-deal”, in a new report from the all-party Brexit select committee of MPs, chaired by the former Labour cabinet minister Hilary Benn.
In a no-deal scenario, the UK will leave the EU with no agreements in place for what the future relationship will look like.
“Our principal message is that a no-deal Brexit cannot be the policy of any responsible government,” Mr Benn told Sky News. “We have taken a great deal of evidence looking at the consequences.
“It would cause disruption to our trade. It would result in the introduction of tariffs. Lots of small businesses have no idea what they’re meant to be planning for.
“And it would raise doubts in the minds of Brits living in European countries and European citizens here about what would happen if we haven’t reached an agreement.”
No fewer than 14 amendments to the prime minister’s Brexit plan, many of them from all-party groupings of MPs, have been tabled ahead of the debate, with a 15th due to be added by the Scottish National Party. In the key amendments:
:: Mr. Benn is calling for a series of votes on Mrs. May’s deal, a re-negotiated deal, no-deal and a second referendum.
:: Sir Graham wants the backstop replaced with alternative arrangements, which while popular with Tory MPs is likely to be rejected by Brussels.
:: And Labour’s Yvette Cooper wants time in parliament for a law to postpone Brexit if the Commons hasn’t approved a deal by 26 February.
Ms. Cooper told Sky News: “What it does is it gives the government until the end of February to try and sort this out.
“But the clock really is ticking now and so that’s why we think there should be a vote to make sure that we can prevent no-deal if the government hasn’t sorted it out by then.
“And I think the government has to recognise after all of the delays – the prime minister has delayed this process for such a long time – she may need additional time now to sort this out.”
She added: “We can’t just sort this by a game of brinkmanship and chicken. We need a bit of common sense in this. And I think that everybody can’t just stand back and wait for somebody else to sort this out. In the end, we do need some responsible leadership from the government on this to sort it out.
“So I think everybody should be pulling together. I think we have all got to work together to try and get a workable deal in place.”
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