Tories question ‘strange’ plan to specify Brexit date in law

Kenneth Clarke and other pro-EU Conservatives say May proposal harms UK in talks

Kenneth Clarke: “It is quite unnecessary to actually close down our options as severely as we are with this amendment.” Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Kenneth Clarke: “It is quite unnecessary to actually close down our options as severely as we are with this amendment.” Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

 

Pro-European Conservatives have joined Labour and other opposition parties in condemning Theresa May’s proposal to specify in legislation the date of Britain’s departure from the European Union. As MPs started scrutinising the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, critics accused the government of gimmickry in tabling an amendment stating that Brexit must happen at 11pm on April 29th, 2019.

Former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve warned that the amendment could limit the government’s room for manoeuvre if it needed more time to secure a satisfactory Brexit deal.

“I have to say I find this amendment by the government so very strange, because it seems to me to fetter the government, to add nothing to the strength of the government’s negotiating position, and in fact potentially to create a very great problem that could be brought back to visit on us at a later stage,” he said.

One of the most important pieces of Brexit-related legislation to come before the House, the Bill transposes EU rules into British law and repeals the legislation that brought Britain into the Common Market in 1973. MPs have tabled almost 500 amendments, although only a handful will be considered over the next few weeks.

British prime minister Theresa May. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA
British prime minister Theresa May. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

The government surprised many of its own backbenchers when it tabled its own amendment specifying the date of withdrawal. Following protests to the whips, the government tabled a second amendment, which would allow for the date to be changed if circumstances demanded it.

‘Foolish’

Former Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke said it was foolish of the government to put the withdrawal date into law before it had any idea how the negotiations with the EU would conclude.

“It is quite unnecessary to actually close down our options as severely as we are with this amendment when we don’t know yet, when it is perfectly possible that there is a mutually beneficial, European and British, need to keep the negotiations going for a time longer to get them settled,” he said.

Labour’s Chuka Umunna accused the government of paving the way for leaving the EU without a deal, a prospect Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon said would be disastrous for Northern Ireland.

“It would mean, inevitably, a hard Border. For those of us who have grown up in Northern Ireland, who grew up through 32 years of violence, killing and mayhem, I am not prepared to sit in this House and allow this House to go down the route of ‘no deal’ – which endangers people, UK border officials and PSNI officials along the Border. It is imperative we have a deal,” she said.

MPs will continue their scrutiny of the Bill on Wednesday and for two days each week until the Christmas recess. In their first division, MPs voted on a Plaid Cymru amendment that would have given the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a veto over Brexit. They rejected it by 318 votes to 52.