Could the Letwin amendment delay Brexit?

October 21, 2019 posted by


Brexit: What is the Letwin amendment and will it pass? Mark D’Arcy Parliamentary correspondent The latest gambit by the alliance of MPs around Sir Oliver Letwin looks like a real problem for the government whips, as they prepare for Saturday’s critical vote on the new-look Brexit deal  The amendment would withhold approval of the deal, until the legislation to enact it was safely passed – a move that would automatically trigger the “Benn Act” and force the prime minister to request a further postponement of Brexit until 31 January  (There are also a couple of SNP amendments, but the lesson of the Brexit battles so far is that it is the cross-party amendments and motions that are the most dangerous Single party proposals are mostly efforts to signal a position, it’s the proposals that MPs from several parties can sign up to that pose a more serious threat ) Sir Oliver’s amendment is a cunningly-crafted proposition which, crucially, could be voted for by MPs who want a deal, but don’t trust this one, and don’t trust the government  It rests on the idea that were Parliament to approve the deal for the purposes of the Benn Act now, there might then be a danger that the subsequent legislation to enact it might be, somehow, derailed, resulting in a no-deal exit on 31 October  With the Benn Act out of the way, they believe that some manoeuvre, some legislative judo move, by factions inside and outside the government, who favour a “clean Brexit” could leave no time for any effective counter… and Britain would be out, with no deal  This reflects the sheer level of distrust that has accumulated over several cycles of Brexit angst  The government’s attempt to prorogue Parliament in September has permanently scarred the soft Brexit/Remain faction; they might be offered some reassurances, but they could well demand a pact signed in blood  So never mind the plausibility of the betrayal scenario, look at the support for the amendment  It is signed by Sir Oliver, the former Chancellor Philip Hammond, and the former Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke – the big names of the rebel Conservative group who lost the party whip – and by Nick Boles, one of the apostles of a “Norway Option” compromise  That suggests the amendment may well have enough (ex) Tory support to pass… unless there’s a countervailing Labour rebellion in the government’s favour  There are certainly a number of Labour MPs (and independents of various stripes) who, like Mr Boles, yearn for a Brexit deal they can back  But this may not be it. ‘Singapore-on-Thames?’ A key factor is that they want a deal which keeps the UK in close alignment with the EU – particularly on labour standards, environmental protection and consumer safeguards, and they detect what they believe is a weakening of the government’s commitment to those “level playing field” commitments  Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay insisted at this week’s Brexit Select Committee meeting that the government was not seeking to turn Britain into a deregulated “Singapore-on-Thames”, competing with the EU on its very doorstep  Labour voices, like the influential former minister Pat McFadden question whether, after a journalistic career which produced scores of columns denouncing EU red tape, the PM would really keep those protections in place  The Letwin amendment would invite the government to put forward a bill to implement their deal – but bills are amendable, and you can bet that everything from a requirement to stay in a customs union to making the whole thing subject to a further referendum would then be proposed  (Although, to succeed, a referendum amendment would require Labour support, and Labour’s internal wrangling on that point is some way from being resolved )  And with a minority government struggling for control of the Commons, ministers could well see a number of unwelcome changes imposed by MPs  It is even possible that the government could decline the invitation and pull its motion, before it could be voted on  Over the next few hours the government will be seeking to soothe the concerns underlying Letwin’s amendment, and pressure its own rebels back into line  It’s going to be a tough sell.  Apologies for the non-appearance of my week ahead in Westminster blog, last week This was due to man-flu. I plan to post a look ahead to next week’s business, on Saturday Because the outcome of Saturday’s votes could well reshape the parliamentary programme

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