John Bercow risks fresh Brexiteer backlash by rejecting bid to put time limit on Irish backstop

Posted On: 
15th January 2019

John Bercow has risked a fresh row with Tory eurosceptics after rejecting two amendments designed to swing wavering MPs behind Theresa May's Brexit deal.

Speaker John Bercow has already clashed with MPs over claims he wants to thwart Brexit.
Credit: 
PA

In a further blow for the Prime Minister, the Commons Speaker announced that just four amendments to the deal will be voted on by MPs - with two bids to provide firmer guarantees on the controversial Northern Ireland backstop left out.

Ahead of the meaningful vote on Mrs May's deal, the Speaker confirmed that MPs will get to vote on tweaks put forward by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP's Ian Blackford, and Conservatives Edward Leigh and John Baron.

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But Mr Bercow - who has the power to choose which amendments get voted on - opted not to pick two aimed at winning round Brexiteers and the DUP, and which had the tacit support of the Government.

Former minister Hugo Swire's attempt to rein in the backstop with six new conditions - including allowing MPs to have a vote on whether to enter it or extend the Brexit transition period - did not make the cut.

Meanwhile Conservative MP and Northern Ireland Affairs Commitee chairman Andrew Murrison had sought to fix a firm end date to the backstop, which critics fear will currently leave Britain indefinitely bound to EU rules.

His amendment said the agreement would be passed "subject to the Withdrawal Agreement treaty being amended to specify that the backstop solution shall expire on 31 December 2021".

Mr Bercow's decision effectively means MPs will have a straight vote on Mrs May's deal at 8pm - with the Government braced for a heavy defeat.

Number 10 had been hoping that strong backing for either of the Swire or Murrison amendments could send a signal to Brussels to agree changes to Mrs May's deal to help the Prime Minister get it approved by MPs.

Speaking in the Commons after the chosen amendments were announced, Mr Swire took a veiled swipe at the Speaker, who last week became involved in a bitter bias row with Brexiteers.

He asked attorney general Geoffrey Cox: "Does he agree that the non-selection of the amendment standing in my name and the amendment standing in the name of [Andrew Murrison] makes the Government’s challenge this afternoon harder, to convince those of us who are still concerned about the implications of the backstop, and what does he think can replace those two amendments?"

While the move by the Speaker is likely to enrage supporters of Mrs May’s deal, however, the DUP had already made clear that it could not get behind the last-ditch Murrison amendment.

In a statement a DUP spokesperson said: “Parliament is today being asked to vote on the legally binding withdrawal agreement negotiated by the Prime Minister. That does not contain an end date on the backstop.

“The Prime Minister has known for many weeks what we require. Amendments tabled in Parliament will have no bearing on the legal status of what has been negotiated. What is required is for the Prime Minister to go and secure legally binding changes as she promised.

“Today’s very belated amendments are part of the internal parliamentary games and do not change the need to secure legally binding changes.”

MPs will now have the chance to vote on up to four amendments, including one from Labour rejecting the entire deal and anotehr from the SNP and Plaid Cymru which tries to kill it off by saying it would be "damaging for Scotland, Wales and the nations and regions of the UK as a whole".

Number 10's hopes of allowing MPs to vote for the deal while objecting to the backstop now rest with the remaining two amendments, tabled by Tories Sir Edward Leigh and John Baron.

The Leigh amendment calls for assurances that the UK will “terminate” the entire deal if the backstop looks set to run on beyond the end of 2021.

Meanwhile the Baron amendment, which will only be voted on if Sir Edward Leigh's bid falls, tweaks the deal to say it is passed “subject to changes being made in the Withdrawal Agreement and in the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol so that the UK has the right to terminate the Protocol without having to secure the agreement of the EU”.

You can read PoliticsHome's guide to all four amendments here