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The UK government is on the verge of giving up on its plan to put a specific date for Brexit into domestic law, after facing a rebellion of pro-EU MPs from within prime minister Theresa May’s Conservative party.
The government had proposed that March 29 2019 — at 11pm London time — be inserted into the EU withdrawal bill, which sets out the legal framework for Brexit. But pro-EU MPs, including more than a dozen Conservatives, opposed the idea, saying it would remove the government’s ability to extend talks with Brussels.
On Thursday David Lidington, the justice secretary, said there had been “various constructive suggestions” on the issue, and the government would “listen to ideas”. It was the clearest hint yet that the government would climb down on the measure, which is due to be voted on next month.
The proposal for a specific date was seen by MPs as an attempt by the government to win favourable coverage in pro-Brexit newspapers. It backfired days later when enough Conservative MPs made clear their opposition on the matter to wipe out the government’s slim majority in the House of Commons. Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, called the date “silly”. Dominic Grieve, a former attorney-general, said it was “barmy”, and no amount of “arm-twisting” could persuade him to vote for it.
The government has already had to make one major concession to pro-EU MPs by agreeing that any final exit deal with the EU will be subject to a full vote in parliament. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said that MPs would be able to amend the deal, in which case the government would seek to agree their changes with Brussels.
But pro-EU MPs are likely to demand further changes to the withdrawal bill. They want a commitment from the government to give parliament a full vote if it plans to leave the EU without a deal. Many MPs are also concerned by the wide powers granted to ministers to adjust EU law as it becomes part of British law.
Removing the specific date would allow the government to revert to its initial draft of the withdrawal bill, which gave ministers the power to determine exit day. This would allow flexibility: Article 50, the EU’s exit clause, allows talks to be extended if all 28 EU countries agree, while Britain is also looking for a transition period that would maintain many features of the status quo.