Brexit latest: Minister tweets letter explaining why she defied UK Govt by abstaining from Brexit vote

Update: Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, who yesterday defied Government whips to abstain on a motion on leaving the EU without a deal, tweeted a letter she had sent to constituents defending the move.

“Last night I abstained on the main motion in the House of Commons which asked whether we should leave the European Union without a deal,” the letter read.

“To do so would, in my view, do generational damage to our economy and security. It is a mistake to leave the EU without a deal, but it is right to prepare to do so just in case so we can mitigate any damage as best as we can.”

She said she voted against the Government because it was “the only opportunity to vote to prevent no deal at the end of this month”, which she said was “completely consistent” with Government policy.

“I wanted March 29 to be a day of new beginnings when we could start to focus on maximising the prospects for the UK outside the European Union. I have consistently voted and acted to support the Prime Minister’s plan to leave the European Union.

“However, we are once more trying to find a way to leave the European Union consistent with our commitment to maintain a strong relationship with Europe.

“I continue to support that. I continue to support the PM in delivering an agreement,” she concluded.

Conservative MP Mark Francois, vice-chairman of the Leave-backing European Research Group, said: “Sarah Wollaston’s amendment, which will be voted on at 5pm, is an in-principle decision by the House of Commons on whether or not to have a second referendum.

“It has long been the Conservative Party’s policy to oppose such a poll and I hope that every Conservative will vote against it.

“However, after the chaos of last night, if any Government minister fails to oppose a second referendum they must surely follow the honourable example of Sarah Newton and resign on principle. Our members in the country would expect no less.”

Update: Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom warned that the EU’s 27 remaining members may not be willing to grant the UK an extension to Brexit talks.

“They may not give the extension timeline that we want, they may set conditions that we might find unacceptable, or they may simply refuse,” Ms Leadsom told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.

Ms Leadsom said she did not want any extension: “I want us to be leaving the EU with the Prime Minister’s deal on March 29. I think it’s in the UK’s national interest.”

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell tweeted: “The People’s Vote campaign is clear that today is not the day to press the public vote issue in Parliament.

He continued: “It reflects what I have said in various interviews today. Careful judgement has to be exercised at each stage of this process.”

Labour will not be backing the amendment calling for a second referendum, the shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer confirmed.

Speaking in the Commons, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras referenced the official People’s Vote campaign, who have said they do not back the motion tabled by independent MP Sarah Wollaston.

After reading out their objections he added: “Those pressing this amendment seem to be out of step with the vast majority of co-campaigners, campaigning for exactly the same push.

“They may genuinely have a difference of opinion but we will not be supporting H tonight.”

Former Conservative minister Anna Soubry, a leading backer of a second referendum, shouted “shame on you” at Sir Keir.

Earlier: John Bercow excludes amendment rejecting second referendum for today's Brexit vote

The British House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has selected four main amendments for the debate on extending the Brexit process.

They do not include amendment B, which sought to reject a second Brexit referendum.

    The included amendments are:

  • Amendment H, tabled by Independent Group MP Sarah Wollaston and which seeks an Article 50 extension to stage a second referendum with Remain and Parliament’s preferred Brexit option on the ballot paper.
  • Amendment I, tabled by Labour’s Hilary Benn and which seeks to allow MPs to take control of the Brexit process.
  • Amendment E, Labour’s amendment which notes that Parliament has “decisively” rejected both Theresa May’s deal and no deal and calls for a delay to Brexit “to provide parliamentary time for this House to find a majority for a different approach”.
  • Amendment J, Labour MP Chris Bryant’s amendment to stop a third meaningful vote on Mrs May’s deal.

Brexiteer MPs expressed fury at Mr Bercow’s decision not to select amendment B, which sought to reject a second Brexit referendum.

Deputy chairman of the ERG bloc of Eurosceptic Tories, Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford), said it was signed by “127 members of this house including the entirety of the DUP, 13 members of the Labour Party, and one independent to boot” as well as more than 100 Conservatives.

He said “it therefore had far more signatories than any other amendment on the order paper”, adding that although he “accepts the final decision is yours”, he asked the Speaker for guidance as to why it was not chosen – and the rival amendment pursuing a second referendum was chosen.

Mr Bercow hit back, saying that “members do have to take the rough with the smooth”, adding that while it is true the number of signatories is important it is “not the only factor”, and he tries to “always do my best to be fair to the miscellany of different points of view represented in this House”.

But senior backbench Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, raising a point of order, said there might be “some concern” over the selection of amendments around a second Brexit referendum, asking Mr Bercow what were MPs to conclude about “your views on these matters”.

The Speaker, in his reply, said MPs were “not to conclude anything” in respect of his views.

Update: European Commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “I will not make any comment on the likelihood of an extension, of the duration of the extension.

“First we need to see a UK reasoned request and then this will be in the hands of the leaders of the EU27 who will decide accordingly.”

Asked about the redistribution of UK seats to other EU countries for the upcoming European Parliament elections, European Commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “The Juncker letter has said very clearly that if the UK is still a member of the EU at the time of the parliament elections they will have to take part in those.

“And he also said… yesterday that this unanimous decision by the EU 27 leaders on a possible extension request will have to give priority to the need to ensure the functioning of the EU institutions and take into account the reasons for and the duration of the possible extension.”

Tory MP Sir Oliver Letwin and Labour’s Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper have tabled an amendment seeking to allow MPs to take control of the Brexit process.

The amendment aims to “enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support”.

It states that on March 20, the standing order stating that Government business has precedence will not apply, and instead precedence will be given to a motion in the name of 25 MPs “relating to the Business of the House on a future day or days in connection with matters relating to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union”.

The amendment, signed by Mr Benn, Sir Oliver and Ms Cooper, also bears the names of Dominic Grieve, Norman Lamb, Stewart Hosie and Ben Lake.

Earlier: Arlene Foster outlines what the DUP wants in Brexit deal

DUP leader Arlene Foster has been explaining what her party needs to see before backing a deal.

She said: "What we want to see is a deal that works for Northern Ireland, one that doesn't leave Northern Ireland behind that keeps the constitutional and economic integrity of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, but which also works with the Republic of Ireland, with our neighbours there."

In response to Donald Tusk’s suggestion he could appeal to EU leaders for a “long extension” to Article 50, the European Parliament’s Brexit Co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: “Under no circumstances an extension in the dark!”

“Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European Council to agree on a prolongation. Even the motion tabled for this evening by the UK Gov. recognises this.”

Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom made no mention of a date for a third meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal as she announced the business for next week.

Mrs Leadsom confirmed a series of Brexit-linked statutory instruments would be put before MPs.

She later said: “I hope this House will come together to find a consensus that delivers on the will of the people to leave the European Union and do so in a way that inspires confidence in Parliament and in our roles as MPs.”

Earlier: We should ask EU for 'a good, long delay,' says pro-Europe Tory

Pro-Europe Tory Ken Clarke told Sky News: “I think we should suggest to the Europeans a good, long delay.

“Go back to square one and work out… over a proper time, the final relationship.”

Nigel Evans, joint executive secretary of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, said Mrs May must regain control of her party after a number of ministers defied her three-line whip in Wednesday's vote.

"Her authority was openly defied by Cabinet ministers and other ministers," he said.

"She needs to reassert her authority. We have to have collective responsibility in government, otherwise it just simply doesn't work.

"Apparently Cabinet ministers were confused last night as to whether they were on a three-line whip or not. Well, funnily enough, I received a text that told me on my phone that I was on a three-line whip. They received the same text. It's amazing that you can be a Cabinet minister and still not know what a three-line whip text means.

"I will vote against the extension tonight because we told the British people that we would leave on March 29 and that's what we should do. But, of course, no deal was taken off the table last night which really does weaken any negotiating position of the Prime Minister."

Earlier: Commons ‘certain’ to vote to delay Brexit, says UK Chancellor

It is “certain” that MPs will vote today to authorise Theresa May to seek a delay to Brexit, British Chancellor Philip Hammond has said.

And European Council president Donald Tusk indicated that the EU may be ready to offer a lengthy extension to negotiations if the UK wants to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.

The Chancellor denied being at odds with the British Prime Minister, after he called for Parliament to seek a “consensus” solution to Brexit and to “explore other options” if her deal is voted down for a third time next week.

But Labour called on him to join them in cross-party talks on finding a “compromise” which can command the support of Parliament, after Mrs May’s authority was severely dented by three defeats in the space of 24 hours.

Mr Hammond is the most prominent of a group of Cabinet ministers suspected by Leave-backing Tories of being prepared to accept a “softer” form of Brexit.

There have been calls for the removal of four Cabinet ministers, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and David Mundell, and several of lower rank who failed to vote with the British Government on a motion ruling out a no-deal Brexit.

Work and pensions minister Sarah Newton quit the Government to vote for the motion.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(PA Graphics)</figcaption>
(PA Graphics)

But Mr Clark told ITV1’s Peston that the decision to whip the vote was made “very late in the day” without collective discussion, and the abstainers believed they were acting “completely in accordance with long-standing Government policy”.

Mr Hammond said there was “confusion” around the vote and told Sky News: “I don’t expect there to be mass sackings as a result of last night.”

There were suggestions as Mrs May went down to a 43-vote defeat on Wednesday that ministers had been assured they would not face repercussions for defying the whip.

But one abstaining minister told the Press Association: “I wasn’t told anything other than to vote against the amended motion.”

And health minister Stephen Hammond said he had received no assurances he would keep his job.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Business Secretary Greg Clark (Victoria Jones/PA</figcaption>
Business Secretary Greg Clark (Victoria Jones/PA

MPs will vote today on a Government motion proposing to seek a delay in the date of Brexit from March 29 to June 30 if the Commons approves Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement in a third “meaningful vote” by next Wednesday.

But the motion warns that if the deal, already rejected by 230 votes in January and 149 this week, fails again, the UK may have to accept a longer extension and take part in European Parliament elections in May.

Any extension must be approved unanimously by the 27 remaining EU states, and Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl said there could be “some problem” in obtaining this if it took Brexit beyond the date of elections.

Mr Tusk said he would appeal to leaders at a Brussels summit on March 21 to be “open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.

Philip Hammond urged hard Brexiteers to consider backing Theresa May’s deal when it returns to the Commons.

“I understand why they may not find the Prime Minister’s deal perfectly in line with their view of the optimum future relationship,” he told Sky News.

“But it is clear the House of Commons has to find a consensus around something, and if it is not the Prime Minister’s deal, I think it will be something that is much less to the taste of those of the hard Brexit wing of my party.”

And he added: “I am very happy with the Prime Minister’s deal.

“I would be delighted if a consensus emerges behind the Prime Minister’s deal over the next day or two.

“But I think we also have to explore other options for Parliament to express a view about how we resolve this impasse.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(PA Graphics)</figcaption>
(PA Graphics)

Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell urged him to get involved in talks on a compromise option.

Mr McDonnell told Sky: “Philip Hammond said he was opposed to no deal and was interested in compromise.

“We are saying to Philip Hammond ‘You said yesterday you and other MPs in your party are looking for compromise. Join us now in working through that compromise, because we think MPs, in the interests of the country, will put party politics aside and do that’.”

Mr Hammond told the Today programme that the Government would continue to try to build support for Mrs May’s deal, but added: “Whatever happens, if we don’t get the deal through in the next couple of days, the Prime Minister has to go the European Council next week and seek an extension of time – I’m certain that she will be mandated by Parliament today to seek an extension of time.

“And the European Union is going to ask us ‘What do you want this time for? What is the process now?’ and the House of Commons, if it can’t agree the deal over the next few days, has to decide what the answer to that question is.”

Labour has tabled an amendment to the motion on Article 50, requiring Mrs May to seek an extension to avoid exiting the EU on March 29 without a deal and to “provide Parliamentary time for this House to find a majority for a different approach”.

Other amendments from The Independent Group and Liberal Democrats ask for a delay to provide time for a second referendum, something which is notably absent from Labour’s proposal.

Asked if Mrs May should be more flexible on Brexit if Labour is, Mr Clark said: “I think everyone needs to be flexible.”

Steve Baker, a leading member of the European Research Group (ERG) of eurosceptic Tory MPs, branded the situation a “fiasco”.

He told Peston: “It is, of course, extraordinary to see such a collapse in discipline.

I didn't get into politics for this chaos, this fiasco

“And in any other circumstances, of course, they would be fired.

“Of course I’m sad about it. I didn’t get into politics for this chaos, this fiasco.”

Mr Baker said the ERG could try to prevent the law being changed to alter the scheduled exit date from the EU.

He said: “As a matter of practice, unless the law is changed, we leave on March 29.

“There are some things that we could do to prevent the law going through in the time that is available.”

Mrs May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy warned the PM had “lost her ability to lead her party, her Government, and the country”.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: “Parliament is in control. Her deal is dead.

“And the country is heading for a softer Brexit – or worse, no Brexit at all.”

- Press Association