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Theresa May's two-day Northern Ireland trip to include border visit

By Suzanne Breen

The Prime Minister is due to fly into Northern Ireland on a two-day trip tomorrow that will include a high-profile visit to the border.

Theresa May will meet farmers and business people along the frontier where she will hear concerns about Brexit and give her views on the way forward.

Mrs May will then separately meet the leaders of Northern Ireland's five main political parties.

She is expected to deliver a key-note address in Belfast on Brexit on Friday. A Downing Street spokesman last night confirmed that the Prime Minister would be visiting this week.

Mrs May was invited to visit the border by DUP leader Arlene Foster when she held talks with the Prime Minister at No.10 a fortnight ago.

Details of tomorrow's visit emerged as the Government performed a U-turn on bringing forward MPs' summer holidays in the middle of the latest Brexit political crisis.

MPs are due to rise for the summer recess on July 24, but a motion tabled on Monday night would have seen the Commons rise tomorrow, with a vote pencilled in for today.

But the Government did not move the motion amid growing Tory opposition to the plan, with several Conservative MPs having indicated they would vote against any attempt to cut short the term with so much work to do on Brexit.

The DUP had also been set to oppose the proposal. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: "We are very content for Parliament to meet next week on Monday and Tuesday and had planned accordingly. We were not consulted on the proposal to bring forward the recess by two days."

Mrs May last night saw off a significant challenge to her Brexit plans, thwarting a rebel Tory move that could have forced her to try to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU. The Prime Minister was saved from a humiliating reverse by the votes of four Labour Brexiteers - and one currently sitting as an independent - who backed the Government in the crucial division.

But 12 Conservatives broke ranks to back the customs union measure, even though it is understood that Tory whips told would-be rebels there would be a confidence vote that evening if it passed.

The DUP backed the Prime Minister. Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "The approach of the DUP in supporting the Government in voting down a customs union is particularly illogical.

"Some commentators, and even the DUP themselves, have indicated their own real red line is avoiding a customs interface down the Irish Sea. The UK as a whole being in a customs union with the EU is a necessary requirement to achieve this. Once again the DUP are acting against the fundamental economic and political interests of Northern Ireland."

Mrs May went down to defeat on a separate amendment to her flagship Trade Bill, which will require her to seek continued UK participation in the EU's system for regulation of medicines after Brexit.

In dramatic scenes in the House of Commons, ministers made a last-ditch effort to avoid defeat by offering to introduce amendments in the Lords which would deal with "the essence" of rebel Tories' concerns over future customs arrangements.

But despite the rebels' rejection of this overture, Mrs May emerged triumphant by a margin of just six votes as the Commons rejected the key amendment by 307-301.

Labour Brexiteers Frank Field, Belfast-born Kate Hoey, John Mann and Graham Stringer - along with independent Kelvin Hopkins - voted with the Government. All had previously backed the medicine regulation amendment, except for Ms Hoey, who did not vote.

Former minister Guto Bebb, who quit his Defence brief on Monday in protest at Government concessions to hard Brexit Tories, was among 12 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the customs union plan. He was joined by Heidi Allen; Kenneth Clarke; Jonathan Djanogly; Dominic Grieve; Stephen Hammond; Phillip Lee; Nicky Morgan; Bob Neill; Antoinette Sandbach; Anna Soubry, and Sarah Wollaston.

A senior minister told the Press Association it was "extraordinary that we lost the vote that didn't matter and won the one that did". They added: "I don't know where we go from here."

The amendment would have forced the Government to adopt a negotiating objective of seeking to keep the UK in "a customs union" with the EU after Brexit, unless it has managed to negotiate a "frictionless free trade area for goods" by next January.

Downing Street insisted that this would have breached Mrs May's red line - enshrined in the Chequers agreement - to take Britain out of the customs union.

The crucial vote came moments after the Government went down to defeat by 305-301 over the medicines regulation.

The successful amendment requires Mrs May to make it an objective in negotiations with Brussels to ensure the UK can continue to participate in the regulatory network operated by the European Medicines Agency, which is being relocated from London to Amsterdam as a result of Brexit.

Belfast Telegraph

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