May suffers key Brexit defeat as Commons exerts power

UK parliament forces prime minister to quickly present ‘plan B’ if withdrawal deal rejected

UK Prime Minister Theresa May got in a fiery exchange with the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, when confronted on the lack of change on her Brexit deal. Video: Parliament TV


MPs have given British prime minister Theresa May less than a week to come up with an alternative plan if the House of Commons rejects her withdrawal deal next Tuesday.

In an acceleration of the process that could see parliament take control of Brexit, MPs backed an amendment that will oblige the prime minister to return within three sitting days of a defeat with a motion outlining what she plans to do next.

The move will prevent Mrs May from seeking to keep her deal alive by running down the clock towards Britain’s withdrawal date on March 29th. And MPs will be able to propose alternative plans by tabling amendments to the motion that could open the way to a softer Brexit or a second referendum.

The vote, which saw MPs back the amendment by 308 votes to 297 in the government’s second defeat on Brexit within 24 hours, followed heated exchanges about parliamentary procedure between Conservative MPs and Speaker John Bercow.

Conservatives accused Mr Bercow of engaging in a “procedural stitch-up” by allowing MPs to amend a motion the government believed to be unamendable.

In unprecedented scenes in the House, MPs submitted points of order for more than an hour, with critics accusing the Speaker of overturning procedural precedent because he was biased against Brexit and calling for his resignation.


The vote came as Mrs May’s government promised to give MPs a vote before triggering the Northern Ireland backstop. The government said it would accept a backbench amendment that would require “parliamentary approval of the commencement of the powers implementing the Northern Ireland backstop”.

The amendment also requires the government to have agreed a future relationship with the EU within a year of the backstop coming into effect.

Separately, the UK government has promised to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a say before agreeing to accept any changes to EU regulations after Brexit.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said during a visit to Ethiopia, that the Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement already allowed for consultation with the Assembly on the backstop.

He warned against “a situation whereby the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly had a veto power because that would essentially give one of the two communities a veto power over the other and that would create a difficulty.”

Simon Coveney: ‘We don’t want the backstop to be invoked at all.’ Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Simon Coveney: ‘We don’t want the backstop to be invoked at all.’ Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Speaking in Belfast on Wednesday night at a lecture marking two years since the collapse of the Northern powersharing, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said restoring Stormont “should be by far the dominant political issue of the day” but it was “overshadowed and complicated” by Brexit.

He said the Government’s “overriding priority” was to avoid a hard border and that “we don’t want the backstop for it to be some kind of trap in which to ensnare and hold the UK or Northern Ireland”.

“Nor do we want the backstop as some kind of stepping stone to changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland . . . In fact, we don’t want the backstop to be invoked at all.”

MPs yesterday began five days of debate on the Brexit deal ahead of a vote next Tuesday, which the prime minister postponed last month as she faced certain defeat.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said his party would oppose the deal and suggested that Brexit might have to be postponed beyond the end of March.

“There is a question of extension of Article 50 and that may well be inevitable now given the position that we are in but of course we can only seek it because the other 27 have to agree,” he said.

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