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Speaker under fire as May defeated in Commons again

By Andrew Woodcock

A dramatic first day of debate on Theresa May's Brexit plans saw the Prime Minister go down to her second defeat within 24 hours amid furious debate over the impartiality of Commons Speaker John Bercow.

The Prime Minister offered MPs new assurances that Parliament will be able to exercise control over the controversial EU backstop if they back her Brexit deal in a crunch vote next week.

Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer suggested that the continued uncertainty meant an extension of the Article 50 process, which would delay the formal date of EU withdrawal beyond March 29, "may now be inevitable".

Amid chaotic scenes in the chamber, MPs backed an amendment requiring Mrs May to come back to the Commons within three working days to set out a plan B if her Withdrawal Agreement is rejected in next week's vote.

Brexit-backing Tories accused Mr Bercow of flouting Commons procedures by allowing a vote on the proposal, tabled by former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

Downing Street said it was "surprised" by the Speaker's decision, as it had been advised that the motion setting out the timeline for events was unamendable.

Previously, the Government had three weeks to bring forward new proposals if it was defeated in the "meaningful vote" on Tuesday, with a further vote to take place a week later.

A No 10 source said the Prime Minister had always intended to "respond quickly" if she failed to secure the support of the Commons. Nevertheless the vote will be seen as another blow to Mrs May's authority as she struggles to win support for her Withdrawal Agreement.

The Government later accepted proposals which would give the Commons the power to reject both an extension to the Brexit transition period and the introduction of a backstop if no wider trade deal is secured by the end of 2020.

The package also places a legally binding commitment on the Government to end the backstop arrangement within 12 months, and to seek assurances from the EU that it will seek to do the same.

It is likely to prompt an angry response in Brussels, which has repeatedly rejected efforts to put a time limit on the backstop, which is intended to avoid a hard border in Ireland if no wider trade deal has been agreed.

The Government would remain under an international obligation to keep the border open, and it is understood ministers would be expected to seek alternative arrangements, possibly involving the use of new technology, within the 12-month deadline.

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