MPs plot to take control of Brexit, PM's office says move 'concerning'

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LONDON: A cross-party coalition of rebel backbench MPs are plotting to seize control of the Brexit process from British PM Theresa May in order to rule out a no-deal Brexit. A private member’s bill will be presented on Monday, the same day that Theresa May presents her “Plan B” on the terms under which the U K should depart from the EU.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s bill – The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 3) Bill – requires the government to request an extension to Article 50 – the timetable for the UK’s withdrawal – until December 31, 2019, if Parliament cannot reach a consensus on the way forward by early March. It states: “The effect of the desired extension is that the UK would remain a member state of the EU throughout 2019, with its existing rights and obligations.” All 27 member states of the EU would have to agree, but the signals from Brussels are that they would.

The bill was originally presented by Tory rebel Nick Boles MP but was superseded by Cooper’s bill, which differs in that it does not provide a role for the House of Commons’ liaison committee (the most senior cross-party grouping of backbench MPs), which Boles had originally proposed. Cooper’s bill is said to have support from Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat backbenchers.

Cooper’s bill has caused uproar amongst Brexiters who see it as an attempt to thwart Brexit. Tory MP Jacob William Rees-Mogg, chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said: “This bill is an attempt to stop Brexit.” MP Boris Johnson tweeted: “Extending Article 50 now would do nothing but erode trust in politics. We must leave as promised, on March 29th. The government must now go back to Brussels and negotiate a #BetterDeal.”

A backbench bill can only be debated in the House of Commons in backbenchers’ time and so the government has to find time to do it. They can remain under “future business” forever and never get debated.

May is to table a motion on her proposed way forward on Monday to which MPs can make amendments. These will then be voted on January 29. Pro-remain Tory rebel MP Dominic Grieve is planning to table an amendment to May’s motion that will call for precedence to be given in the House of Commons to debate backbencher bills. If that gets passed, then Cooper’s bill and a slew of other bills – including those calling for a second referendum – could get debated, and potentially become law. Some are saying this would a “constitutional coup” as backbenchers would be seizing control of Commons’ business.

But a House of Commons source said: “If a backbench bill became law that would not be a constitutional coup. Two or three private members’ bills become law per year, but these are normally ones the government is interested in backing. All that is happening on Monday is the title of Yvette Cooper’s bill is being read out. It is not being debated,” he said.

The MPs’ move has unnerved Downing Street. May’s spokesperson said: “The British public voted to leave the EU and it is vital that elected politicians deliver upon that verdict. Any attempt to remove the government’s power to meet the legal conditions of an orderly exit at this moment of historic significance is extremely concerning… There is a danger that Parliament could stop Brexit.”

International trade secretary Liam Fox, who last week revealed that he did not have a single trade deal ready in the event Britain leaves the EU without a deal on March 29, said: “Parliament does not have the right to hijack the Brexit process and steal the result from the people.”

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