Theresa May to ask MPs to vote on Brexit divorce deal .PM to push withdrawal treaty without political declaration on original departure day

George Parker and Laura Hughes in London and Jim Brunsden in Brussels YESTERDAY 1057

Theresa May will on Friday make a third attempt to win MPs’ backing for her moribund EU divorce deal, challenging Labour and other parties to vote for a “blindfold Brexit” on the day that Britain was originally due to leave the bloc. With a pro-Brexit demonstration expected at Westminster, the prime minister will urge MPs to back a parliamentary motion that would pave the way for Britain to leave the EU on May 22. But Downing Street insiders admitted Mrs May stood little chance of victory, with Labour, hardline Eurosceptic Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist party all refusing to bow to pressure to support her Brexit deal.

Mrs May has crucially changed the format of Friday’s vote so that MPs will be asked to only approve the 585-page withdrawal treaty, and not the accompanying 26-page political declaration on future relations. By separating the two documents, the prime minister is inviting MPs to support what Labour calls a “blindfold Brexit”: approving the divorce treaty while putting aside the non-binding declaration on what a future UK-EU trade and security partnership would look like. As a result, it will not count as a third so-called meaningful vote by MPs on Mrs May’s exit package. Recommended Brexit The Brexit vote: why May needs a clean sweep of Tories Under the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act, Brexit can only take place if MPs have approved both the withdrawal treaty and the political declaration on future relations. But under a move denounced by Labour as “constitutional trickery”, the government said that if MPs approved the draft treaty on Friday, ministers would immediately bring forward a withdrawal agreement bill to complete Brexit. One minister said that the bill could potentially do away with the need for a meaningful vote by rewriting the 2018 act. Politically sensitive discussions on future UK-EU relations could therefore be deferred until after Brexit. Holding a vote on just the withdrawal treaty is a high-risk strategy because it contains a contentious backstop plan, aimed at avoiding a hard Irish border, which the DUP and Eurosceptic Tories strongly oppose. The treaty also contains sections on citizens’ rights, a £39bn divorce bill and provisions for a Brexit transition period that could last until 2022. The move to split the Brexit deal was partly designed to meet Commons Speaker John Bercow’s recent ruling that the same motion cannot be presented to MPs twice in the same parliamentary session. Mrs May’s deal has already been twice rejected in meaningful votes. The prime minister might try to persuade some Labour MPs to back the withdrawal treaty with an understanding that cross-party work in the Commons would then inform the terms of the future UK-EU relationship. But Labour said it would not support a move in which the treaty was separated from the political declaration, while the DUP, referring to the Irish backstop, said: “The same problem remains.” The last time Mrs May held a meaningful vote on her Brexit deal she lost by a margin of 149 votes. Friday’s vote should be closer because the prime minister’s offer on Wednesday to resign as Conservative leader if her deal is approved has won over some Eurosceptic Tories. The idea of holding a Brexit vote on March 29 was promoted by Michael Gove, the Eurosceptic environment secretary, at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. He said MPs would feel more pressure to support an exit package if they were voting on what was meant to be Brexit day. The fact that Friday was supposed to be a non-sitting day for MPs at Westminster also raised concerns in Downing Street that the public would be furious to see parliamentarians taking a “day off” while the Brexit question remained unresolved. The European Council said last week that if MPs approved the withdrawal treaty by Friday, the EU would extend the Article 50 exit process until May 22. But if the treaty has not been endorsed by the end of this week, Britain faces leaving the EU on April 12, with or without a deal.

Mrs May could still try to win parliament’s approval for her deal after this week, but if she continues to fail to get MPs’ backing she would have to consider asking Brussels for a much longer delay to Brexit to avoid the UK crashing out of the bloc without an agreement. She would have to convince EU leaders that the extra time was needed to pursue a different approach. Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, said on Thursday there could be a EU summit on April 10 or April 11. But the prime minister’s team have not given up hope on her Brexit deal and are eyeing another vote on it next week. In her efforts to win round the DUP, Mrs May has offered the party assurances, which have so far not been made public, that the UK government would minimise friction in trade between Britain and Northern Ireland in the event of the Irish backstop plan coming into effect. The problem facing Mrs May is that the DUP does not trust her potential successors, including former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, to stick to the arrangement. Mr Johnson sees Brexit as a chance to scrap EU laws, not adopt new ones. DUP officials said the party was not engaged in talks with the government on Thursday, although others said that Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary who has good relations with the Northern Irish party, has been serving as an interlocutor.

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