Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May battling to keep Brexit plans on course

Would-be Tory rebels were seen in Number 10 as the Prime Minister sought to avoid defeat next week.

Theresa May has been fighting to keep her Brexit plans on track despite a Cabinet row over proposals for the Irish border and a potential revolt in the Commons.

The UK’s proposals for a “backstop” arrangement for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland  are to be published “shortly”, although Brexit Secretary David Davis undersood to have concerns about some of the details.

Meanwhile Tory Brexit rebels were seen in Downing Street as the Prime Minister sought to avert defeat when the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the Commons on Tuesday.

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Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke leave 10 Downing Street (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The backstop document is expected to set out a time-limited arrangement under which the UK would remain within elements of the EU’s customs union, in the event that it is unable to agree a preferred solution for Northern Ireland.

The proposal threatens to test Cabinet unity, with Mr Davis thought to be pushing for a provision to ensure the UK can withdraw unilaterally.

Asked if he could stay in his job if the Government’s backstop proposals did not have his explicit approval, Mr Davis said: “That’s a question I think for the Prime Minister to be honest.”

He said the detail of the document was still being discussed, adding: “It has been through one Cabinet committee, it is going to another one and it would be improper of me to pre-empt the negotiation there, but I suspect it will be fairly decisive tomorrow.”

Answering questions after a speech in London, Mr Davis also hinted at his frustration the Government’s promised Brexit white paper had not yet been published.

The Prime Minister refused to reveal when the document will be published in Commons clashes with Jeremy Corbyn.

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(PA Graphics)

“In debates in Whitehall between fast and slow, I normally vote for fast. That’s probably a given,” Mr Davis said.

“But what she (Mrs May) said today is exactly right that the White Paper will be published when it’s ready, it’s up to quality, and is exactly what we need to say.”

The Brexit Secretary is set to return to Brussels next week for talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

Asked if Mr Davis had threatened to resign over the backstop issue, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman replied: “Not that I’m aware of, no.”

The return of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to the Commons after a series of bruising defeats in the Lords poses another headache for the Prime Minister.

With Tory rebels set to side with Labour over measures aimed at keeping a customs union on the table, Mrs May engaged in crisis talks to avert a damaging defeat.

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Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke and Antoinette Sandbach arrive at 10 Downing Street (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

As part of a compromise package, debate on the Bill is set to be extended into a second day, with MPs considering the Lords amendments on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The move follows criticism of the original plan to rush the legislation through on Tuesday.

Other contentious pieces of legislation – the Trade Bill and the Taxation (Cross-border) Trade Bill – will also return to the Commons before the summer.

The Prime Minister’s hopes of avoiding defeat over another amendment, aimed at keeping the UK in the single market, were given a boost as it emerged Labour MPs would be told to abstain.

But rebel MPs from both sides of the House of Commons are still pushing for a Norway-style Brexit agreement.

Labour divisions have been exposed by a shadow cabinet amendment which calls for the UK to negotiate “full access” to the EU internal market but stops short of backing European Economic Area (EEA) membership.

Party critics have accused the frontbench of “bailing out” the Prime Minister from a potential rebellion on the single market.

On the other side of the Commons at least 12 Conservatives have signalled their support for a future in the EEA in an amendment to the separate Trade Bill.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said EEA membership was too divisive in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

Asked if he was putting party unity before his beliefs about what is right for the country, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m injecting some honesty about where we are in the Labour Party.”

Labour MP Chuka Umunna told the Press Association he would rebel to support the EEA amendment and a “large number” of Labour colleagues would do the same.

“Every single MP needs to make their own decision about this in the national interest and in the interest of their own constituents,” he said.

“This is one of those issues where if you just blindly follow orders people will not forgive you.”

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(PA Graphics)

Pro-EU Tory Anna Soubry, who supports the EEA option, said a majority of MPs would back remaining in the single market if it was put to a free vote but a “culture of fear” was preventing them from speaking out.

At an Open Britain event, she said Tories at all levels of government – including in the Cabinet – supported an EEA deal.

“They will not speak out, they will not be true to what they believe in,” she said.

“That has got to change, we cannot allow this culture of fear that has developed to continue any longer.”

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