May presents ‘bold new offer’ with second Brexit referendum tilt

UK prime minister also offers MPs vote on customs union but initial reaction is negative

British prime minister Theresa May says she will offer the UK parliament a vote on whether to advance with a second referendum on Brexit. Video: Reuters


Theresa May has offered MPs a vote on a second referendum and a customs union with the European Union if they back what she called a “bold new offer” on Brexit.

In an attempt to win the support of the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers, the UK prime minister promised to legislate for “alternative arrangements” to the backstop and to keep Northern Ireland aligned on customs and regulation with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Within minutes of her speech, however, she came under fire from all sides, with some Conservative Brexiteers who voted for the withdrawal agreement last March saying they will vote against her withdrawal agreement Bill next month. DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party would study the Bill when it is published later this week but added that the withdrawal agreement’s “fatal flaws” remained unchanged.

“Many of the proposals on the backstop serve as an attempt through domestic law to mitigate a bad deal whereas the focus should be on getting a better deal,” he said.


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In a speech at auditors PwC’s offices in central London, Mrs May said the Bill represented MPs’ last chance to vote to leave the EU with a deal. She said that, although she remained opposed to a second referendum, MPs would be able to vote on a proposal for one before the Bill could be ratified.

Backstop reassurances

The prime minister ruled out seeking any changes to the withdrawal agreement and acknowledged that “alternative arrangements” to keep the Border open could not replace the backstop in its text. But she said the Bill would place the government under a legal obligation to seek to agree the alternative arrangements with the EU by December 2020 to try to ensure that the backstop would not have to come into force. 

“Should the backstop come into force, the government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland. We will prohibit the proposal that a future government could split Northern Ireland off from the UK’s customs territory,” she said. 

 “The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will have to give their consent on a cross-community basis for new regulations which are added to the backstop.”

In an attempt to persuade Labour MPs to back the Bill, Mrs May said she would seek changes to the joint political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement, to guarantee that workers’ rights and environmental standards would remain aligned with the EU. And she said that MPs would be able to choose between her government’s proposal for a facilitated customs arrangement and a temporary customs union until the UK’s next general election.

Bad omens

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the proposals looked like a rehash of the government’s positions during cross-party talks that ended last week. Conservative Brexiteers also rejected the prime minister’s plan, which Jacob Rees-Mogg described as “worse than before”.

The prime minister will make a statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday, a day before the UK votes in European Parliament elections that are expected to see Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party emerge on top. The European Parliament said on Tuesday that its advisory committee would investigate whether Mr Farage broke rules by accepting £450,000 in funding for his personal lifestyle from Brexit campaigner Arron Banks without declaring it.

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