Ministers have been accused of trying to push through a “blindfold Brexit” by putting half of Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement with the EU before MPs in a last-ditch attempt to secure extra time from Brussels.
MPs will vote on the UK’s “divorce” agreement today without approving the plan for the future relationship, hours before an EU deadline, to prolong a delay to Brexit from mid-April to the end of May.
Angry parliamentarians accused the UK government of breaching its own Brexit legislation, which requires both the withdrawal agreement and political declaration to be voted on at the same time for the deal with Brussels to be legally ratified.
With Parliament now forced to sit for an extra day for this afternoon’s vote, concerns have also been raised about intimidation of MPs by “far right” Brexit protesters set to gather outside Westminster on the day the UK was originally set to leave the EU.
Announcing the vote, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom urged MPs to back the deal “so that we can leave the EU in an orderly way that gives businesses and people the certainty that they need”.
Approving the withdrawal agreement will meet the requirements of a deal reached at the EU summit in Brussels last week and allow a further extension of Article 50 from
12 April to 22 May.
Under the terms of that agreement, the divorce deal must be approved by MPs by the end of today.
However, it will not qualify as a full “meaningful vote” under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act, so ministers will still need to find enough votes to pass its deal following two historic defeats.
The Prime Minister’s hopes of winning over Brexiteers by promising to stand down before the next phase of negotiations was thwarted by the DUP, who refused to vote for her deal while it contains the Irish border backstop.
That leaves the government reliant on Labour votes, but the party said “uncoupling” the two parts of the Brexit deal was unacceptable and risked “the blindest of all blind Brexits”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his MPs could not support a “blindfold” Brexit, saying: “There’s no way out of it once you have signed it and gone into it and we are not prepared to support the Prime Minister on this.”
Speaking at the British Chambers of Commerce conference yesterday, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “My biggest fear is that unless Parliament takes a stand now, the outcome of the negotiations is going to be determined by the outcome of the next Tory leadership contest.
“It could be a Boris Johnson Brexit, a Jacob Rees-Mogg Brexit or a Michael Gove Brexit. That should give anyone considering supporting May’s deal serious concern.”
Mr Starmer added: “We would be leaving the EU, but with absolutely no idea where we are heading. That cannot be acceptable and Labour will not vote for it.”
Following concerns over MPs’ security, Labour MP Mary Creagh said it was “extraordinary” the last-minute vote “comes right on the day when we know that far-right demonstrators will be gathering in Parliament Square”.
Shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz claimed the government was trying to “break the law” by getting around the requirement for both parts of the Brexit deal to be voted on together.
It has been suggested ministers could use the EU Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill to retroactively amend existing legislation to remove that requirement.