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Pro-EU MPs dealt a blow to Theresa May’s Brexit strategy on Tuesday by claiming they have enough votes to defeat the prime minister’s plans to fix the date for when the UK leaving the EU.
On Monday, the UK government offered one major concession to pro-EU MPs by accepting that any Brexit deal would need to be approved through primary legislation. That move, which will give parliament greater influence over any deal, appeared to be in response to the fact that the government would probably have lost a vote on the issue in the Commons.
But on Tuesday, pro-EU MPs said they would also seek to overturn the government’s proposal to set the exact date the UK leaves the EU as March 29 2019 at 11pm London time.
Ken Clarke, the former Tory chancellor, said setting a specific date could be “disastrous” because it could prevent the government from extending talks with the EU. Mr Clarke said the date was “a sop to the foreign secretary [Boris Johnson] and the environment secretary [Michael Gove]”, both of whom have called for a speedy Brexit.
Dominic Grieve, the former Conservative attorney-general, said that imposing a specific date was “barmy”, and no amount of “arm-twisting” would convince him to vote for it.
Antoinette Sandbach, another Tory MP, said she had only voted in favour of triggering Article 50, the formal EU exit clause, on the basis that talks could be extended beyond two years.
The opposition Labour party also said it was opposed to a fixed exit date, calling the plan “reckless” and “deeply self-harming”.
But Steve Baker, a Brexit minister, defended the policy, which is contained in the government’s flagship EU withdrawal bill. He said the UK had to leave the EU in March 2019 because the EU is not legally able to conclude a trade deal with a country that is still a member state of the bloc.
The government wants to amend the EU withdrawal bill so that ministers would be able to delay the point at which some provisions of the legislation would come into force. For example, the UK could remain in the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice during any post-Brexit transition period. A rival amendment by Labour MP Yvette Cooper would remove the specific exit day from the withdrawal bill, placing it in a separate piece of legislation.
MPs are unlikely to vote definitively on the issue until next month. But that delay could deepen Mrs May’s problems in parliament.
“It’s actually more dangerous for [the government] as the snowball builds,” said one pro-EU Labour MP.
The Conservatives and their allies, the Democratic Unionist party, have a slim working majority in the Commons, and can count on the support of some pro-Brexit Labour MPs in debates about leaving the EU. But the government is likely to be defeated if about 20 pro-EU Conservative MPs rebel.
The EU withdrawal bill is one of the most constitutionally significant pieces of legislation in recent British history. It seeks to ensure legal continuity after Brexit by transferring nearly all EU laws on to British statute books. The bill also gives ministers the power to make adjustments to the law where they deem appropriate.