The Brexit crunch vote will shape the next stage of negotiations with the EU.
The Brexit crunch vote will shape the next stage of negotiations with the EU.

Britain faces dramatic new Brexit battle

BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May has won a rare Brexit victory in parliament - but it has put her on another collision course with the European Union.

Mrs May will now try and seek concessions from the EU and reopen the Withdrawal Agreement she and the 27 other leaders agreed to over months of negotiations.

She will do so after an amendment passed the House of Commons 317-301 that would seek to remove the Irish backstop so many British MPs are unhappy with.

It is a major turnaround from just two weeks ago when rebels within her own party voted her plan down. Those same MPs have now given her a lifeline by backing the amendment which sent her back to the negotiating table.

The backstop would prevent customs and border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland and has been a major source of disagreement throughout the Brexit process.

Following the result, Mrs May said she now had a mandate to take back for further negotiations with the EU.

"Tonight a majority of members have said they would support a deal with changes to the backstop combined with measures to address concerns over Parliament's role in the negotiation of the future relationship and commitments on workers' rights in law where need be," she said.

"It's now clear there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal.

"We will now take this mandate forward and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland."

But the EU moved immediately to rule out any moves to try and alter the Withdrawl Agreement.

European Council President Donald Tusk says the EU-UK divorce deal is not up for renegotiation after Britain's House of Commons on Tuesday voted to replace the Irish backstop border arrangement contained in it with unspecified "alternative arrangements".

"The Withdrawal agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union," Tusk said via a spokesman.

"The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation."

Mrs May earlier made it over her first major hurdle, as a series of dramatic parliamentary votes were held in a desperate attempt to break the political deadlock paralysing the country.

The divided House of Commons was voting on a series of rival Brexit plans after Mrs May's initial plan was savagely rejected a fortnight ago when a record-breaking 230 MPs voted against it.

She was expected to bring a revised plan to the Commons for MPs to debate, but instead made only minor changes to the proposal that was so overwhelmingly rejected.

The law states the government must table a so-called "neutral" motion to be voted on - stating simply that the Commons "has considered the statement" made by the prime minister.

Whether or not MPs vote in favour of the motion tabled by Mrs May is essentially meaningless. What is important is that the motion can be amended - giving MPs the right to pass any resolution they want and therefore dictate to the Government what it should do next.

Seven amendments are being voted on. The most dangerous for Mrs May so far was one by Labour frontbencher Yvette Cooper which aimed to shift control of Brexit from the government to parliament.

It was clearly defeated 321-298.

A loss could have been shattering for Mrs May as it would have given MPs who want to block, delay or renegotiate Brexit a potential legal path to do so.

Another significant amendment, by former Conservative cabinet minister Dominic Grieve, was lost 321-301. If successful it would have seen the government lose the power to control the order of business on six specific days in February and March - possibly allowing anti-Brexit MPs to hijack the parliamentary agenda.

Three others, which sought to remove the chance of a no-deal Brexit and delay the EU departure, all failed.

One did narrowly pass 318-310 that "rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement" but it's not legally binding.

The eagerly-awaited votes were not a rerun of approving or rejecting the original Brexit deal. That won't occur until next month, possibly on February 14, if a new deal has failed to be agreed to with the EU.

MAY FIGHTS ON

Mrs May has tried to build support for her plan and wants a Commons majority so she can return to Brussels and try to win concessions from other European Union leaders.

She believes her agreement could still succeed if MPs fears over the so-called Irish backstop -

That meant supporting the Brady amendment.

"This amendment will give me the mandate I need to negotiate with Brussels. What I'm talking about is a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement," she told parliament.

"It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement, a move for which there is limited appetite among our European partners... but I believe I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the EU."

It was important to show the EU they were united, and she appeared to have won the support from some rebels within her party and also the DUP that props up her minority government.

"Today we have the chance to show the European Union what it will take to get a deal through this House of Commons, what it will take to move beyond the confusion and division and uncertainty that now hangs over us."

The prime minister added: "I also accept that this House does not want the deal I put before it, in the form that it currently exists. The vote was decisive and I listened. So the world knows what this House does not want. Today we need to send an emphatic message about what we do want."

She promised to "bring a revised deal back to this house for a second meaningful vote as soon as we possibly can", adding that if the deal hasn't passed by February 14 MPs will have another chance to vote on their favoured plan then.

Commentators believed this could be enough to convince wavering MPs to back the Brady amendment and reject the Cooper one, as it still meant MPs could ward off a no-deal next month if a deal wasn't reached.

CONSEQUENCES OF THE VOTE

The backstop would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU. This would remove the need for checks between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves on March 29 - just two months from now.

If it crashes out with no deal, a hard border is likely and there could be widespread economic shock for the UK with supply chains that fuel its economy disrupted as tariffs and customs checks are imposed and other barriers are introduced between the troubled nation and the 27 remaining EU members.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said the amendment offered the best chance for Britain to avoid leaving the EU without a deal on future relations.

"I think we should send the prime minister back to Brussels with a strong mandate to be able to say, 'If you compromise with us on this one issue, on the backstop, we would be able to a get an agreement,"' he told the BBC.

It is a high-risk strategy as failure to win enough support could expose her and the government to moves led by Labour MPs to take over the Brexit timetable and potentially delay Brexit.

If there is a delay in leaving the EU, a second referendum or even general election could be needed to help break the impasse.

But it's far from certain Mrs May's preferred amendment could win support from a majority in the Commons, or even within the governing Conservatives. And the EU insists the legally binding withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated.

Though parliament is overwhelmingly opposed to Mrs May's deal, MPs are divided over what to do instead - whether to brace for a "no-deal" Brexit or to try and rule it out.

Pro-Brexit supporters within the Conservatives proposed an 11th-hour compromise that calls for the UK to seek a "new backstop" and an extended transition period of almost three years after March 29 so they can work out a permanent new trade deal.

Mrs May said: "While there are obviously details that need to be worked through, the fact that leading figures from different sides of the argument are coming together to develop proposals shows how much progress has been made over the past few weeks."

Her moves to fix the backstop drew praise from some of her toughest critics. Winning of the negotiators on the Continent won't be as easy.

The EU has already indicated there would be no room for any significant renegotiation regarding the backstop or any other part of the 500-plus pages of the Withdrawal Agreement that was thrashed out over several months.

 

andrew.koubaridis@news.com.au

 

More to come.

 

- With The Sun, AP



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