New concession on backstop issue following furious row over Brexit vote

Theresa May, Brexit, Vote, Politics

A dramatic first day of debate on Theresa May’s Brexit plans saw the Prime Minister go down to her second defeat within 24 hours amid furious debate over the impartiality of Commons Speaker John Bercow.

The Prime Minister offered MPs new assurances that Parliament will be able to exercise control over the controversial EU “backstop” if they back her Brexit deal in a crunch vote next week.

And Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer suggested that the continued uncertainty meant an extension of the Article 50 process, delaying the formal date of EU withdrawal beyond March 29, “may now be inevitable”.

Amid chaotic scenes in the chamber, MPs backed an amendment requiring the PM to come back to the Commons within three working days to set out her Plan B if her Withdrawal Agreement is rejected in next week’s vote.

Brexit-backing Tories accused Mr Bercow of flouting Commons procedures by allowing a vote on the proposal, tabled by former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

And Downing Street said it was “very surprised” by the Speaker’s decision, as it had been advised the motion setting out the timeline for events was unamendable.

Previously, the Government had three weeks to bring forward new proposals if it is defeated in the “meaningful vote” on Tuesday, with a further vote to take place a week later.

The No 10 source said the Prime Minister had always intended to “respond quickly” if she fails to secure the support of the Commons.

Nevertheless the vote will be seen as another blow to the Prime Minister’s authority as she struggles to win support for her Withdrawal Agreement.

The Government later accepted proposals which would give the House of Commons the power to reject both an extension to the Brexit transition period and the introduction of a backstop if no wider trade deal is secured by the end of 2020.

The package, tabled by former minister Sir Hugo Swire, also places a legally-binding commitment on the Government to end the backstop  arrangement within 12 months, and to seek assurances from the EU that it will seek to do the same.

It is likely to prompt an angry response in Brussels, which has repeatedly rejected efforts to put a time limit on the backstop, intended to avoid a hard border in Ireland if no wider trade deal has been agreed.

The Government would remain under an international obligation to keep the border open, and it is understood ministers would be expected to seek alternative arrangements, possibly involving the use of new technology, within the 12-month deadline.

Informing the House of the move, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay accepted that it would not by itself win over the Tory rebels and DUP allies who are threatening to send the Prime Minister’s deal to defeat next Tuesday.

But he said that, coupled with a new pledge of a “strong role” for the Stormont Assembly in the operation of the backstop, it marked a “welcome step forward” towards building support for Mrs May’s deal.

The development came after 17 Tory rebels helped pass Mr Grieve’s amendment by 308 votes to 297.

Alongside the Remain-backing former attorney general in the Aye lobby were former ministers Nick Boles, Kenneth Clarke, Jonathan Djanogly, Justine Greening, Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson, Phillip Lee, Sir Oliver Letwin, Nicky Morgan, Bob Neill, Anna Soubry and Ed Vaizey as well as Heidi Allen, Antoinette Sandbach and Sarah Wollaston and Brexit-backing Andrew Mitchell.

The vote came hard on the heels of Tuesday night’s Commons defeat for the Government on a motion intended to limit its powers to change taxes in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

A series of MPs rose to complain that the vote should not go ahead as the Government motion should not be amendable.

But Mr Bercow defended his decision amid jeers and heckles from the Tory benches, saying: “I’m trying to do the right thing and make the right judgments.

“That is what I have tried to do and what I will go on doing.”

Justice minister Rory Stewart questioned the basis of Mr Bercow’s decision, telling the BBC: “It is a very, very unusual thing that he did.

“I think it probably would have been against the advice of most people on parliamentary procedure.”

In the Commons, Tory anger was directed at the Speaker, who many MPs have long suspected is unduly sympathetic to the Remain cause.

Brexiteer former minister Crispin Blunt warned many no longer regarded him as a neutral arbiter of Commons proceedings and urged him to “reflect” on his position.

“For many of us we will now have an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs … is no longer neutral,” he said.

“I just invite you to reflect on the conclusion that many of us will have inevitably have come to.”

The Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom said there were “some concerns” about his decision and asked him to confirm it was taken with “full advice” from the Commons clerk Sir David Natzler.

Mr Bercow said he had consulted privately with the clerk and other officials, but did not confirm his decision was taken with agreement from Sir David.

Earlier, in Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn urged Mrs May to accept the will of the House as expressed in Tuesday’s vote and rule out a no-deal Brexit.

Mrs May retorted: “The only way to avoid no-deal is to vote for the deal.”