U.K. Brexit Minister Seeks to Avert Tory Revolt Before VoteBy
‘Don’t tie the prime minister’s hands,’ Davis urges Tories
Brexit secretary speaks as Article 50 bill returns to Commons
U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis is seeking to avert a rebellion within the ruling Conservative Party that could complicate government efforts to trigger divorce negotiations with the European Union by the end of this month.
The House of Commons will vote on Monday on a bill authorizing Prime Minister Theresa May to begin the formal two-year process for Brexit. Some Conservatives are pushing for Parliament to have a say on what happens if the talks end without an agreement and have indicated they may oppose her unless she concedes.
May is asking the lower house of Parliament to overturn amendments passed by the unelected upper House of Lords to her draft law, so she can invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by her deadline of March 31. Peers want the bill to protect residency rights of EU nationals living in the U.K. and guarantee legislators a binding vote on the outcome of talks with the EU, even if there is no pact.
Speaking on BBC Television Sunday, Davis described the legislation as a “simple bill” designed to enact the result of the June referendum. “Please don’t tie the prime minister’s hands in the process of doing that, for things which we expect to attain anyway,” he said on the “Andrew Marr Show.”
May has a narrow majority of 17 in the Commons, meaning her government is vulnerable to defeat if as few as nine Tories rebel.
Ministers came under further pressure Sunday after a committee of lawmakers urged the government to prepare for the “real possibility” that the Brexit negotiations end without a deal. Failing to plan for such an outcome would amount to a “serious dereliction of duty,” the Foreign Affairs Committee said in a report.
Davis insisted the government is working on contingency plans should the negotiations “go wrong.”
"The aim is to get a good outcome and I’m confident I’ll get a good outcome,” he said. “One of the reasons we don’t talk about the contingency plan too much is we don’t want people to think this is what we are trying to do.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described the report as "excessively pessimistic” and said Britain will prosper outside the EU even if it fails to get a deal.
“I think that actually, as it happens, we would be perfectly OK if we weren’t able to get an agreement, but I’m sure that we will,” he said on “Peston on Sunday” on ITV television. “I don’t think that the consequences of no deal are by any means as apocalyptic as some people like to pretend.”
Michael Heseltine, who was fired as a government adviser last week after he led a 13-strong revolt in the House of Lords, condemned Johnson’s assessment as “rubbish.”
A smooth process in Parliament could in theory let May trigger Article 50 as soon as Tuesday. Her room to maneuver is potentially limited by Dutch elections on March 15, a conference of the Scottish National Party March 17-18 and a celebration in Rome of the EU’s founding treaty on March 25.
Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, told Sky News he thinks the government will serve formal notice to the EU on Wednesday or Thursday.
Davis refused to be drawn on the date, saying only it would happen by the end of the month. The government intends for Britain to be out of the 28-nation bloc by March 2019, he said.
If the Commons votes to overturn the amendments, the bill will be sent back to the Lords to reconsider. The upper house could then choose to reinstate the amendments and send the bill back to the Commons again. This is the process known as “ping pong.”
The government has set aside time on three days this week for the “ping-pong” stage, although May’s team is confident she’ll get the law past Parliament without any amendments in time for her to meet her deadline. The prime minister says the tweaks to the 137-word bill are unnecessary and would deprive her of maximum flexibility in the Brexit talks.
The negotiations face an early test, with Britain and the EU already at odds over the cost of exit. The EU puts the bill at as much as 60 billion euros ($64 billion). British Trade Secretary Liam Fox has rejected the notion of paying anything at all as “absurd.”
May will raise the stakes by asking the EU to return 9 billion pounds ($11 billion) of British assets held by the European Investment Bank, the Sunday Times reported, citing unidentified senior government officials.