If the UK Parliament rejects Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement next Tuesday (15 January), as is widely expected, she will be forced to present a new Brexit plan within three days.
On Tuesday (8 January), MPs narrowly backed an amendment tabled by former minister Dominic Grieve giving May a 72-hour deadline to offer an alternative Brexit plan if MPs vote down the Withdrawal Agreement and accompanying Political Declaration on future relations.
Lawmakers are also putting increasing pressure on the May government to ensure that a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario is avoided.
Earlier on Tuesday morning, Chris Heaton-Harris, the Brexit minister responsible for ‘no deal’ planning, told MPs on the cross-party Exiting the EU committee that ministers had upped their contingency planning for ‘no deal’.
A former MEP and veteran Eurosceptic, Heaton-Harris said that “a ‘no deal’ would be suboptimal, but nowhere near as bad as some newspaper reports are suggesting”.
Ministers are continuing to say that failing to approve the divorce deal struck by May and EU leaders in November would ultimately lead to a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and have flatly ruled out either an extension of Article 50 or a radical change to their negotiating tactics.
“The one certain way to avoid a ‘no deal’ is to vote for the prime minister’s deal,” said Heaton-Harris, who added that there were no plans to re-table the Withdrawal Agreement if it was voted down.
“A ‘no deal’ could happen,” he said, adding that “a responsible government has to prepare for every eventuality” and was “working on a reasonable worst case scenario”.
He also played down suggestions that a ‘no deal’ would cause gridlock at the port of Dover as a result of extra checks and delays on trucks.
The UK government has already spent £100 million on ferry services from alternative ports to ease the pressure on the Dover-Calais route, and organised a planning exercise at nearby Manston airfield as a holding centre for trucks queuing to reach Dover in the event of disruption.
Meanwhile, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the boss of the Calais port said his organisation had been preparing for Brexit for a year and “would not check the trucks more than we are doing today.”
Heaton-Harris added that a ‘no deal’ scenario would mean the UK paying only a fraction of the £39 billion divorce payment it has committed to under the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Some of it would have to be paid…but it would be nowhere near (the £39bn)” since it would not cover any outstanding commitments under the EU budget after Brexit day.
“We would pay the debts that we are legally obliged to pay but no more,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Brexit minister told MPs that there was no way to avoid the UK leaving the EU, commenting that “the legislation is set out now, and the fact that we have activated Article 50, I actually still believe we will be leaving the EU on March 29 at 11pm.”
“Is there a parliamentary route with which Brexit can be stopped? I do not believe so,” he added.
The French government has appointed a ‘no deal’ coordinator and passed its own contingency legislation for a ‘no deal’ scenario in December.