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25 January 2019

The amendments designed to “rule out a no-deal Brexit” expose just how difficult it is to avoid one

Parliament is to vote on three such amendments next week, proposed by Tory MP Caroline Spelman, and Labour MPs Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves.

By Stephen Bush

Who has more to fear from their frontbench? On the Conservative side, Amber Rudd refused to rule out resigning to prevent a no-deal Brexit on Newsnight, while Richard Harrington has dared Theresa May to sack him from his post as business minister after saying that no deal is a disaster that must be taken off the table sooner rather than later.

The significance is Tuesday’s looming vote on the government’s Brexit strategy, and the three amendments that would “rule out no deal”: Rachel Reeves’ amendment calling on the government to request an extension to the Article 50 process, Yvette Cooper’s amendment that would bring forward legislation to compel the government to do so, and a non-binding amendment from Caroline Spelman calling on no deal to be ruled out by means unknown. May faces the prospect of further resignations from her government and the pool of available Conservative MPs to replace them who aren’t opposed to her Brexit strategy is very, very thin.

But on the Labour side, that party is struggling to hold onto the support of all its MPs to back the Cooper or Reeves amendments. Two shadow ministers I spoke to were deeply concerned about the impact of voting for an extension in their own seats. On the backbenches, there are the usual difficulties winning over the seven committed Labour Leavers, while Caroline Flint, the most vocal of the party’s Remainers turned Leavers, has said that she will find it difficult to vote for an extension as it isn’t clear what the extension is intended to accomplish, and several other MPs are privately of the same mind. Both could still pass but neither is home and dry.

The Spelman amendment is significantly more likely to pass because it requires parliament to do something that there is demonstrably a majority for (declare that no deal is a bad idea) without asking it to commit to anything that might actually take no deal off the table.

There are two ways to read that: the first is that the problem is that these amendments don’t go far enough. Cooper’s amendment merely extends the run-up towards the cliff while the others don’t even do that. One nervous MP described voting for it as “all pain no gain”, as they would still take the hit for frustrating Brexit but they wouldn’t actually have taken no deal off the table.

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But the second, and I think more plausible, is that if even an extension proposed by an MP who has personally committed to delivering Brexit and who compared people who voted against triggering Article 50 to Donald Trump cannot easily and comfortably pass the Commons, the path to avoiding no deal is fraught indeed.

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