May government rules out Brexit vote before local polls

A road sign reading 'Road Ahead Closed' on Westminster Bridge in London, Britain, 5 December 2018. [Andy Rain/EPA/EFE]

Theresa May is likely to make one last attempt to pass her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in a bid to avoid having to hold European elections next month, but not before UK local elections on Thursday (2 May).

The government’s new plan is to turn the Withdrawal Agreement into a Bill that can be amended in a bid to persuade Labour MPs to support it. It is also set to include provisions on keeping the UK aligned with EU standards on workers’ rights and environmental protection.

But the vote will not take place before the UK holds local elections. On Thursday (25 April), Andrea Leadsom, the minister responsible for managing parliamentary business, did not put the Withdrawal Agreement on the agenda for next week.

Attitudes among Tory MPs against the Withdrawal Agreement have hardened since the vote on March 29, when it was rejected by a majority of 58, and officials concede that it is highly unlikely that May’s government will be able to attract the 30-40 Labour MPs it would need to cobble together a majority.

In the meantime, negotiations with Labour with a view to a cross-party agreement on Brexit continued this week but have made little progress, with both sides accusing the other of refusing to compromise.

The Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, told his party’s spring conference on Sunday (28 April) that its 35 MPs would not be supporting the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

The May government’s options are narrowing fast.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled that the government cannot bring an unchanged withdrawal agreement back to the Commons for another “meaningful vote”. However, if the government was to secure a majority for the WAB, it could seek to amend it so that a further meaningful vote on the deal would be unnecessary.

Should the WAB be defeated at its second reading, the government would be unable to present it to MPs again without proroguing parliament. Ending the current parliamentary session, would lead to a new Queen’s Speech in which the Brexit legislation and a new legislative programme could be re-tabled. Leaked correspondence suggests that UK civil servants have been told to prepare for the end of the current legislative programme in June.

Alongside the incentives for opposition MPs to back the bill, there have also been calls by Conservative lawmakers to take the Northern Irish backstop out of the Withdrawal Agreement bill, an idea that the government continues to reject.

On Thursday, a Downing Street spokesperson insisted that this could not be done.

“In order to ratify the withdrawal agreement – which is what’s necessary for us to leave the EU – then obviously the government would have to secure the whole of the withdrawal agreement with the EU,” the spokesperson said.

Although the chaos of Brexit is likely to punish the governing Conservative party at the municipal polls, with the Tories braced to lose between 500 and 800 local councillors, the party is particularly anxious to avoid the European elections. Surveys suggest that 60% of Tory activists and 40% of the party’s local councillors plan to vote against their own party in the EU elections, and the latest surveys on the European elections put the Tories on 13%, around half the level of Labour and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

Any extension past 22 May 2019 will require the UK to take part in the European Parliament elections, due to take place on 23 May.

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