MPs demanding the right to reject a hard Brexit have warned that the UK could crash out of the European Union without a deal in six months.
With as little as 48 hours until the UK’s departure from the EU officially gets under way, Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry claimed the government was preparing for the swift failure of Brexit talks.
Senior UK ministers yesterday played down the dangers of a hard Brexit in the event that talks collapse, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saying it would be “by no means apocalyptic”.
Legislation to trigger Brexit could clear its final hurdle today as MPs begin debating amendments to the Article 50 bill. It comes as a leading think-tank warned that the Civil Service will need more staff and resources to deal with Brexit negotiations while at the same preparing the UK for life outside the EU.
Brexit could be rubber-stamped as early as tomorrow if MPs strip two House of Lords amendments from the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, allowing ministers to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The timing for any announcement is highly sensitive, with the SNP conference taking place this weekend in Aberdeen. Downing Street is also believed to be wary of influencing Dutch elections on Wednesday, in which far-right, anti-EU populists led by Geert Wilders have threatened to top the poll. The government also risks offending EU leaders by triggering Brexit closer to 25 March, the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome which created the single European market.
However, the Prime Minister’s timetable could be blown off course if MPs decide to back either of two amendments to the bill by peers. One seeks a unilateral guarantee for EU citizens living in the UK, while the other would give MPs a “meaningful” vote on the final terms of Brexit, allowing them to send Mrs May back to the negotiating table in Brussels if her terms are unacceptable or she fails to strike a deal.
Mr Davis pleaded with MPs ahead of today’s debate not to send the Prime Minister into talks in Brussels with “one hand tied behind her back”.
Insisting MPs would get a say on the final Brexit deal and that EU citizens’ rights would be respected, he said in an interview yesterday: “Please don’t tie the Prime Minister’s hands in the process of doing that for things which we expect to attain anyway.”
Conservative whips are reported to have ordered MPs to be at Westminster today, and cancelled permissions to miss voting in the Commons. Two ministers are believed to have cancelled foreign trips.
Reports suggest up to ten Conservative MPs could oppose the government or abstain in the vote, including former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former chancellor Ken Clarke.
Labour sources were quoted as saying there was a 20 per cent chance of peers sending the bill back to the Commons again if their amendments are dismissed out of hand, risking a further delay.
Mr Davis confirmed the government was preparing contingency plans in case the UK does leave the EU without a Brexit deal, which would mean punishing tariffs imposed on UK exports as part of World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.
He said the UK would be ready if talks in Brussels “go wrong” and the country falls off “a cliff edge” into WTO trade rules. It comes after a committee of MPs warned that failure to put a back-up strategy in place would be a “serious dereliction of duty”.
Mr Davis told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday: “We have been planning for the contingency, all the various outcomes, all the possible outcomes of the negotiations.”
But Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, said that leaving the EU without a Brexit deal was “not in anybody’s interest”.
Mr Fox said: “I understand we need to plan for no deal, but I think it’s unlikely to happen because economic reality will get in the way.” He added: “We accept that we are not staying in the single market and there is a price to be paid for not staying in the single market.”
Speaking on the BBC, Ms Soubry, one of the leading pro-EU Tory backbenchers who could lead a rebellion today said: “I think the big fear, certainly the fear I have, is that we’ll be crashing out in six months.”
Indicating that she would vote against the Brexit trigger or abstain if the amendments are not carried, Ms Soubry added: “I think what is happening is that the government is putting in place scaffolding at the bottom of the cliff to break our fall when we come to fall off that cliff.
“And I think many in government are actually preparing, not for a two-year process, but six to nine months off the cliff, out we go. That’s my real fear.”
Mr Johnson said it was “excessively pessimistic” to predict that Brexit talks would fail to produce a framework for co-operation and trade.
He told ITV’s Peston On Sunday show: “I think that’s excessively pessimistic of that otherwise distinguished committee. I think we’ve got every prospect of doing a very good deal between now and the end of the negotiating period.”
Stephen Gethins MP, the SNP’s Europe spokesman, called on the House of Commons to back efforts to give EU citizens guarantees that their right to live and work in the UK will be respected after Brexit.
He said: “If the UK government does not use its powers to give EU nationals the certainty they deserve then immigration powers should be devolved to Scotland to allow an immigration policy that works for our economy, for our jobs market, for our key sectors and for Scotland.
“The Prime Minister cannot talk about building a fairer and global UK while jeopardising the status and rights of EU citizens who have made the UK their home and contributed to society both socially and economically.
“Rather than denying their rights, we should be encouraging and welcoming the role of EU citizens in our communities. In everyday life, from deli owners, health service workers to council candidates; EU nationals don’t only make my constituency vibrant and diverse, but cities across the UK too.
Mr Gethins added: “We must also look to strengthening scrutiny over this process. Triggering Article 50 will have an impact on each and every one of us, our rights, jobs, opportunities for young people and the economy.
“Parliamentarians must have oversight of this process as they would with any other and we must have a meaningful vote to approve any deal.”