May defends soft Brexit plan from backbench sniping

Hardline Brexiteers unhappy about White Paper plotting course to ‘half-leave’ the EU

Irish Times managing editor Cliff Taylor on the long-awaited Brexit White Paper, which sets out the UK government's vision for Britain's future relationship with the European Union

 

Theresa May has defended her plan for a soft Brexit following fierce attacks from backbench Conservative MPs, many of whom have threatened to vote against any deal based on it. The British prime minister said the proposals in a White Paper published on Thursday “absolutely” deliver on the Brexit referendum vote.

“They voted for us to take back control of our money, our law and our borders. That is exactly what we will do,” she said.

The 98-page document outlines in detail the proposal agreed by the British cabinet at Chequers last week, which led to the resignation of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and David Davis as Brexit secretary. It calls for an association agreement between Britain and the EU, with full regulatory alignment of goods and agri-food and a tariff-free customs arrangement.

Presenting the White Paper in the House of Commons, new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said it was a blueprint for a “principled, pragmatic and ambitious” partnership that would also ensure that there would be no hard Border on the island of Ireland.

“Now it is time for the EU to respond in kind. We approach these negotiations with a spirit of pragmatism, compromise and, indeed, friendship, I hope. I trust that the EU will engage with our proposals in the same spirit,” he said.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the European Commission, member states and European Parliament would examine the proposals, adding that he looked forward to resuming negotiations next week.

Irish welcome

The Government welcomed the publication of the White Paper, expressing the hope that it would inject momentum into the negotiations, but did not express a view on whether it would be acceptable to the EU. 

“We will consult with our EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier and his team and our other EU partners,” it said.

 Amid chaotic scenes in the Commons, speaker John Bercow suspended the sitting briefly to allow MPs to receive copies of the White Paper, which had been shown to the media hours earlier. When they did see the document, Brexiteers, including former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, were unhappy.

“I have deep misgivings about what the government are proposing. Having voted to leave, I voted to leave, not to half-leave,” he said.

Theresa May: “They voted for us to take back control of our money, our law and our borders. That is exactly what we will do.” Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via Reuters
Theresa May: “They voted for us to take back control of our money, our law and our borders. That is exactly what we will do.” Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via Reuters

Another Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said the White Paper would leave Britain subject to EU rules it would have no role in shaping. “Taken as a whole, this recreates many of the worst aspects of the EU the British people voted to leave. This does not respect the referendum result,” he said.

Backbench machinations

Conservative backbenchers have tabled amendments to a trade Bill next week that would block a number of the White Paper’s proposals, including its customs plan. Brexiteers are especially angry over proposals that would allow the EU’s Court of Justice to continue to exercise indirect jurisdiction in Britain and the paper’s suggestion that EU nationals could receive preferential treatment on immigration.

Mr Raab reassured Brexiteers on one point, however, when he suggested that Britain could withhold its promised £39 billion payment to the EU if no deal on the future relationship were agreed.

“If we found, having agreed the withdrawal agreement, that the progress towards the future trade and special partnership arrangement was not proceeding apace, then it would have consequences for the rights and the obligations that the UK has undertaken, including in respect to the financial obligations that we undertake,” he said.