Theresa May 'challenges MPs to back her to trigger Brexit'
MPs will be challenged by Theresa May to explicitly back her to trigger Brexit by April in the House of Commons on Wednesday, a Tory MP has revealed.
The Prime Minister will hope the move fends off a potential Commons rebellion as up to 40 Tory backbenchers were thought to be ready to back a Labour motion calling for her to set out her Brexit plan.
An amendment in the name of Mrs May will accept the Labour motion, allowing potentially rebellious Tories to back it, prominent Eurosceptic Steve Baker revealed in a tweet.
But it will also challenge them to "respect the wishes" of voters in the referendum and call on the Government to trigger Article 50 by the end of March - in accordance with the timetable set out by the PM.
A Downing Street spokesman stressed that the amendment was "a separate issue" from the Government's Supreme Court battle to overturn a ruling that it should obtain Parliament's approval before triggering Article 50.
The spokesman added: "The Prime Minister has been clear that we will set out our plans in due course. That remains the position.
"We won't be showing our negotiating hand until we have to, but we have not suggested we will not set out the position. That's what the amendment goes to."
Mr Baker urged his Tory colleagues to back the amendment.
He told the Press Association: "Every Conservative MP should respect the result by voting with the Government on this excellent amendment to trigger Article 50 on the Prime Minister's schedule."
Mrs May's move also allows Tories to back Labour's motion, which acknowledges that some elements of the negotiating position should remain secret but urges the Prime Minister to "commit to publishing the Government's plan for leaving the EU" before triggering Article 50.
A Number 10 source stressed that any backing of Mrs May's amendment would not satisfy the ruling that she must get parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50, which the Government is currently challenging in the Supreme Court.
The source said the ruling specifically stated Mrs May would need approval in legislation, a requirement not met by amendment to a non-binding Opposition Day motion.
Discussing the thinking behind the Government amendment, a Number 10 source said: "Crucially, from our perspective, it's making sure that Parliament are very clear they are not going to use this as a delaying method.
"So it's now down to MPs to signal that they also want to get on with Brexit by supporting our position, which is the Government should invoke by the end of March next year."
The development came as the European Union's lead Brexit official warned that the UK will have to reach a deal within 18 months of negotiations, in order to allow time for it to be ratified by the European Parliament and national leaders sitting in the European Council.
European Commissioner Michel Barnier urged the UK to "keep calm and negotiate" as he suggested that October 2018 will be the deadline for agreement if Mrs May launches withdrawal talks by the end of March, as she has promised.
And he suggested that time would be too short to finalise all details of Britain's future relationship with the EU - potentially including the vital issue of trade - telling a Brussels press conference: "You can't do everything in 15 to 18 months of negotiations."
Article 50 states that existing treaties will cease to apply to departing states a maximum of two years after they notify Brussels of their intention to leave, raising the danger that there will be no framework in place to govern relations with the EU unless any agreement is fully ratified by this point.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that the schedule set out by Mr Barnier should give "absolutely ample" time for a deal, but Downing Street signalled that the UK was not committed to this timetable, stating that it would be "wrong" to put a deadline on the conclusion of negotiations.
A Number 10 spokesman pointedly said: "It is our Article 50 as well, because we are members of the EU. The timetable is clear in that."
But he added: "We believe we can get the whole process concluded within two years."
Mr Johnson, arriving in Brussels for talks with Nato counterparts, said: "I think that, with a fair wind and everybody acting in a positive and compromising mood - as I'm sure they will - we can get a great deal for the UK and for the rest of Europe within that timeframe, I see no reason why not at all."
Meanwhile, Mrs May attempted to stamp out speculation about whether the Government is aiming for a "hard" or "soft" Brexit by declaring she wants a "red, white and blue Brexit".
The phrase was denounced as "jingoistic claptrap" by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, but Mrs May - speaking during a visit to Bahrain - said it meant "the right deal for the United Kingdom ... That's what we are about and that's what we will be working on."
In an apparent sign that he is unwilling to budge from the requirement for freedom of movement in return for full access to the single market, Mr Barnier said the UK will not be allowed to "cherry-pick" which EU rights and obligations it wishes to keep.
As a "third country", Britain would never be able to enjoy the rights and benefits of an EU member after Brexit, he said.
"Being a member of the European Union comes with rights and benefits," said Mr Barnier. "Third countries can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to the same obligations."
Mr Barnier indicated a transitional arrangement - potentially meaning the UK continuing to pay into the Brussels budget in order to secure the best single market access - could be put in place after the formal break, in order to avoid the kind of "cliff edge" shutdown of free trade arrangements which Mrs May mentioned in a recent speech to business leaders.
But he said it would be up to the UK to set out its aims first before the rest of the EU could consider a transitional deal.
A transitional period "only has sense if it prepares the way for a future relationship", said Mr Barnier, in his first briefing since being appointed European Commission chief negotiator by president Jean-Claude Juncker in July.
He said he had visited 18 of the 27 remaining EU capitals since July and had established a taskforce of 30 experts who were scouring the EU's rules and regulations to identify issues for the Article 50 talks.
"We are ready," he said. "Keep calm and negotiate."
Despite earlier suggestions that he would insist on French being the language of the Article 50 talks, Mr Barnier spoke in both English and French at the Brussels press conference.
Asked whether Mr Barnier's use of the wartime slogan was provocative, a Downing Street spokesman said the UK would conduct negotiations "in a spirit of goodwill and we will do it calmly".
Mr Barnier's comments indicated that he was "open to the negotiating process", said the Number 10 spokesman.
The Liberal Democrats said Mrs May must now set out whether she plans to keep the UK in the European single market.
Foreign affairs spokesman Tom Brake said: "Five months on, finally this Conservative Brexit Government is admitting that triggering Article 50 without a plan would be like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.
"Theresa May must now drop the platitudes and come up with clear answers on the big questions facing the country, including membership of the single market.
"Anything less risks plunging our economy into years of damaging uncertainty while the Government desperately tries to stitch up a deal behind closed doors.
"Ultimately, the British people must also be given a say on the final deal negotiated so that they can decide whether it's right for them."
Labour described Mrs May's amendment as a "significant 11th hour concession" and called on her to publish her Brexit plan before the end of January.
The party indicated it was willing to back the Government amendment, insisting it does not want to delay or frustrate the process of triggering Article 50.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: "This is a welcome and hugely significant climbdown from the Government.
"For the last two months Labour have been pushing the Government to put their plan for Brexit before Parliament and the public. Without that plan, we have had unnecessary uncertainty, speculation and a running commentary on the Government's likely approach.
"The Government have now agreed to publish that plan, and to do so before Article 50 is invoked.
"Labour will hold the Government to account on this. We will also push for a plan to be published no later than January 2017 so that the House of Commons, the devolved administrations, the Brexit Select Committee and the British people have a chance to scrutinise it."
Brexit-backing Tory Tim Loughton criticised the Government's approach to implementing Brexit.
The former minister tweeted: "Government amendment for tomorrow's debate on triggering Article 50 is good but frankly using an amendment to a Labour Opposition Day debate is no way to be leading policy on most important constitutional issue facing us for decades-Govt needn't have got us in this position".
Pro-EU Tory MP Neil Carmichael suggested his Remain-backing colleagues would keep the pressure on Mrs May.
He tweeted: "Pleased Government has accepted need for a Brexit plan - good for business confidence & international reputation, but there is more to do."
Tory Anna Soubry, seen as a leader of the potential rebellion, demanded a White Paper from the Government setting out the different options for Brexit which MPs could then have a say on.
Insisting she would not block leaving the EU, the former minister told Sky News: "Personally, I would have liked a White Paper because I would like the options to have been laid out in it.
"And then I would hope that the Government will say, well actually, this is a set of principles.
"I would like membership of the single market, this I believe in so fiercely as to being the best thing for our country.
"But there are other options and of course there's an argument to be had about it.
"There's a debate to be had about it - this is what we need to do, we need to craft this so we know what our guiding principles are."