Brexit: May warns opponents they risk damaging UK economy and democracy

Brexit: May warns opponents they risk damaging UK economy and democracy

Theresa May has said the UK faces a moment of “profound challenge” as she urged MPs to get behind her Brexit deal. The prime minister warned critics from both sides of the Brexit divide that they risked damaging the economy and trust in democracy by opposing her plan. As MPs prepare to return to Westminster…

Theresa May has said the UK faces a moment of “profound challenge” as she urged MPs to get behind her Brexit deal.

The prime minister warned critics from both sides of the Brexit divide that they risked damaging the economy and trust in democracy by opposing her plan.

As MPs prepare to return to Westminster with a crunch Commons vote looming on the withdrawal agreement thrashed out with Brussels, May said no alternative plan was able to respect the 2016 referendum result, protect jobs and provide certainty to citizens and businesses.

Quick guide

Why extend the Brexit transition period?

Will the proposal solve anything?

The mooted extension to the transition period is a new idea being put forward by the EU to help Theresa May square the circle created by the written agreement last December and the draft withdrawal agreement in March. 

That committed the UK and the EU to ensuring there was no divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

But it also, after an intervention by the Democratic Unionist party, committed the UK (not the EU) not to have any trading differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. 

The problem is that these are two irreconcilable agreements. They also impinge on the legally binding Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland and in some senses pooled sovereignty of Northern Ireland giving people a birthright to be Irish or British or both. 

If the UK leaves the EU along with the customs union and the single market then the border in Ireland becomes the only land border between the UK and the EU forcing customs, tax and regulatory controls. 

The backstop is one of three options agreed by the EU and the UK in December and would only come into play if option A (overall agreement) or option B (a tailor-made solution) cannot be agreed by the end of transition. The Irish have likened it to an insurance policy. 

The new EU idea is to extend the transition period to allow time to get to option A or B. 

But an extension is problematic for Brexiters and leave voters, who want the UK to get out of the EU as soon as possible. 

The Irish and the EU will also still need the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, which must be signed before the business of the trade deal can get under way. Otherwise it is  a no-deal Brexit

Extending the transition into 2021 would mean another year of paying into the EU budget. Britain would have to negotiate this but it has been estimated at anywhere between £10bn and £17bn. 

Staying in the EU for another year would also mean continued freedom of movement and being under the European court of justice, which Brexiters would oppose. 

Addressing opponents on both the remain and Brexiter wings of the Commons, she said on Sunday: “There are some in parliament who, despite voting in favour of holding the referendum, voting in favour of triggering article 50 and standing on manifestos committed to delivering Brexit, now want to stop us leaving by holding another referendum.

“Others across the House of Commons are so focused on their particular vision of Brexit that they risk making a perfect ideal the enemy of a good deal.

“Both groups are motivated by what they think is best for the country, but both must realise the risks they are running with our democracy and the livelihoods of our constituents.”

The prime minister said that the British “genius for pragmatism” had always found a way forward which commands consensus at “moments of profound challenge” such as this.

Officially slated for the week of 14 January, the Commons vote is widely expected to be held on 15 January.

Speaking to the Press Association in Los Angeles, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, said: “Parliament needs to understand that if we’re not able to come to parliament and get a deal, then we may end up leaving the EU with no deal.

“Most people seem to say that’s not what they want to see, well they better make up their minds before we get to a week on Tuesday because that’s going to be a very key decision-making point.”

In a Mail on Sunday article, May said Labour’s approach under Jeremy Corbyn had been based on a “cynical tissue of incoherence, designed to avoid difficult decisions”.

The prime minister was forced to postpone a vote on her plans in December after it became clear the deal would be rejected by MPs.

With Tory rebels and her DUP allies expected to oppose it, May hopes to win round some Labour MPs alarmed at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

“MPs of every party will face the same question when the division bell rings,” she said.

“It is a question of profound significance for our democracy and for our constituents. The only way to both honour the result of the referendum and protect jobs and security is by backing the deal that is on the table.”

But the former cabinet minister Sir John Redwood said a no-deal Brexit “will work just fine” despite the “idiotic” warnings about potential shortages of food and medicines.

The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, said he was “confident” there would be an “unhindered” supply of medicines even if there was a no-deal Brexit, as long as the pharmaceutical industry took the necessary action.

“We are confident that if everybody does what they need to do then we will have an unhindered supply of medicines,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

Quick guide

Brexit and backstops: an explainer

A backstop is required to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland if a comprehensive free trade deal cannot be signed before the end of 2020. Theresa May has proposed to the EU that the whole of the UK would remain in the customs union after Brexit, but Brussels has said it needs more time to evaluate the proposal.

As a result, the EU insists on having its own backstop – the backstop to the backstop – which would mean Northern Ireland would remain in the single market and customs union in the absence of a free trade deal, prompting fierce objections from Conservative hard Brexiters and the DUP, which props up her government.

That prompted May to propose a country-wide alternative in which the whole of the UK would remain in parts of the customs union after Brexit.

“The EU still requires a ‘backstop to the backstop’ – effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy. And they want this to be the Northern Ireland-only solution that they had previously proposed,” May told MPs.

Raising the stakes, the prime minister said the EU’s insistence amounted to a threat to the constitution of the UK: “We have been clear that we cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom,” she added.

“A lot of this relies on the pharmaceutical companies and others, so it isn’t entirely in the gift of the government, but we need to do what we need to do and the pharmaceutical industry – so far that work has been progressing very well, I’ve been very pleased with the response of the pharmaceutical industry who obviously take this incredibly seriously.”

Asked if he could guarantee that no one would die as a result of a no-deal Brexit, Hancock said: “I’m confident that we will have the unhindered supply of medicines so long as the plans that we have in place are properly enacted.”

On the other side of the Tory divide, the veteran pro-EU MP Ken Clarke said May’s deal – which he would be prepared to support – was “dying”, and he would be “amazed” if the mood of MPs had changed over the Christmas break. Instead, he called for Brexit to be postponed until a way forward could be found.

MPs will resume debate on the Brexit deal on Wednesday before a vote the following week.

May is said to be considering offering MPs further safeguards about the Irish backstop – the measure aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland which critics fear could leave the UK indefinitely bound into a customs union with the EU and prevent future trade deals with countries around the world.

But the former Brexit minister Steve Baker rejected the proposals, saying they were a “tedious and desperate attempt to rescue an unsalvageable deal”.

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