BRITAIN will enter a ‘sustained period of uncertainty’ if MPs back a long extension to the Brexit process, Theresa May’s deputy has claimed.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington (pictured) said MPs would be allowed to vote for their preferred outcome in a two-week period after next week’s European Council meeting should the government fail to secure a Brexit deal and short extension.
His offer sought to prevent a further damaging defeat in the Commons, which could result in MPs taking control of the Brexit process.
A cross-party amendment selected for consideration aims to ‘enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support’ on March 20, which could also start the process for ‘indicative votes’.
For Labour, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer (below) said they will not be backing an amendment calling for a second referendum and argued Thursday’s debate was about whether Article 50 should be extended.
He referenced the official People’s Vote campaign, who have said they do not back the proposal tabled by Independent MP Sarah Wollaston.
Former Conservative minister Anna Soubry, now an Independent MP who is a leading backer of a second referendum, shouted ‘shame on you’ at Sir Keir while SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford accused Labour of being ‘a fraud’ for failing to back another referendum.
Other amendments selected for a vote by speaker John Bercow include Labour’s bid to delay Brexit ‘to provide parliamentary time for this House to find a majority for a different approach’ and Labour MP Chris Bryant’s plan to stop a third meaningful vote on Mrs May’s deal.
Opening the debate in the Commons, Mr Lidington said: ‘We basically have two options. First, if the House approved a meaningful vote by March 20 and agreed a timetable for the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill, we could expect the European Union to agree to a short technical extension to allow the necessary legislation to be carried through.
‘If that proves, for whatever reason, not to be possible we would be faced with the prospect of choosing only a long extension, during which the House would need to face up to the choices in front of it and the consequences of the decisions that it has taken.
‘But the government recognises the House will require time to consider the potential ways forward in such a scenario. In such a scenario the government, having consulted the usual channels at that time, would facilitate a process in the two weeks after the March European Council to allow the House to seek a majority on the way forward.’
Mr Lidington said there would be ‘consequences’ of a longer extension to the Brexit process, including the need to hold European Parliament elections in May.
He told MPs: ‘We either deliver on the result of the referendum, giving people and businesses across the country the certainty they’re calling for and move on as a nation, or we enter into a sustained period of uncertainty during which time the government would work with this House to find a way through, but which I fear would do real damage to the public’s faith in politics and trust in our democracy.’
Mr Lidington earlier reiterated the government’s opposition to a second referendum.
After Tory former minister Mark Francois questioned if the government would whip its MPs and ministers to oppose amendment H, Mr Lidington said: ‘I hope it provides some reassurance if I say that the government’s collectively agreed policy as regards a second referendum has not changed.’
For Labour, Sir Keir said of the second referendum bid: ‘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.’
Labour MP Wes Streeting pressed Sir Keir to clarify if a proposal from colleagues Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson to back Mrs May’s deal with the condition that it is then put to a confirmatory public vote is “wholeheartedly supported by the Labour leadership”.
Sir Keir replied: ‘Yes.’
Labour’s Hilary Benn, pushing the cross-party amendment, said he was not seeking to specify what MPs should do next but instead ‘book a slot’ to allow a debate on how to resolve Brexit.
Dr Wollaston added on her second referendum proposal: ‘For young people in this country, they face being wheeled into the operating theatre for major constitutional, social and economic surgery based on a consent form that was signed by their grandparents nearly three years ago.’