The risk of a “disorderly” Brexit has never been higher, the EU’s chief negotiator has said, following MPs’ second rejection of Theresa May’s deal. Michel Barnier said the EU “cannot go any further” in trying to persuade MPs to back the agreed terms of exit and the UK had to break the impasse. He questioned what the purpose would be of extending the talks beyond 29 March. MPs will vote at 19.00 GMT on whether to block the UK from leaving the EU without an agreement later this month. Wednesday’s vote only applies to the 29 March deadline and would not rule out the prospect of a no-deal exit later this year, if Parliament is ultimately unable to agree a way forward. Ahead of the no-deal Commons vote, the government announced that most imports into the UK would not attract a tariff in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As the government considers its next move after Mrs May deal was defeated by 149 votes, Mr Barnier said it was time for the UK to take “responsibility” for its actions. “Again the House of Commons says what it doesn’t want,” he told the European Parliament. “Now this impasse can only be solved in the UK. “The risk of no-deal has never been higher. That is the risk of an exit in a disorderly fashion.” The EU, he suggested, had gone “as far as it possibly can” to satisfy MPs’ concerns over the agreement, particularly in relation to the backstop, an insurance policy to stop a hard border on the island of Ireland. “If the UK still wants to leave the EU in an orderly manner, this treaty is, and will remain, the only treaty possible,” he said. MPs will vote on a government motion, which says the Commons “declines to approve leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework on the future relationship on 29 March”. Mrs May, who is currently chairing a cabinet meeting, has said Tory MPs will get a free vote. That means ministers and MPs can make their own mind up rather than following the orders of party managers an unusual move for a vote on a major policy. The no-deal debate will begin after Prime Minister’s Questions and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Spring Statement economic update.
Leaving the EU in 16 days’ time remains the UK’s default position under the law, unless talks are extended. If a no-deal exit is rejected, MPs will vote on Thursday on delaying Brexit by extending Article 50 the legal mechanism that takes the UK out of the EU. The EU has said it would need “a credible justification” before agreeing to any extension. Such a move would have to be agreed by every member state. The PM had made a last-minute plea to MPs to back her deal after she had secured legal assurances on the Irish backstop from the EU during late-night talks in Strasbourg on Monday. But although she managed to convince about 40 Tory MPs to change their mind, it was not nearly enough to overturn the historic 230 vote defeat she suffered on the same deal in January. Speaking after the defeat, she said MPs would have to decide whether they want to delay Brexit, hold another referendum, or whether they “want to leave with a deal but not this deal”. She will tell MPs whether she will vote for no deal or not when she opens Wednesday’s debate. Labor have said the prime minister’s Brexit deal is now “dead”, while Conservative Brexiteers and Remainers have also called for alternatives to be seriously discussed. Despite Tuesday’s defeat, the BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg said, there were ministers who believed it could still ultimately prevail as other options gradually fell by the wayside due to lack of parliamentary support. Labor wants no-deal to be “taken off the table” and is likely to back an amendment a legislative tool tabled by MPs Jack Dromey and Caroline Spelman ruling out the UK leaving without an agreement at any stage in the process. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey told news agency that Parliament would increasingly “set the agenda” if the government was not in control of events. She said No 10 should consider giving MPs a free vote on the full range of options for the UK’s relationship with the EU including Labor’s own plans for a customs union.
What isn’t clear is how the prime minister actually intends to dig herself out of this dreadful political hole. Some of her colleagues around the Cabinet table think it shows she has to tack to a closer deal with the EU. Some of them believe it’s time now to go hell-for-leather to leave without an overarching deal but move to make as much preparation as possible, and fast. Other ministers believe genuinely, still with around two weeks to go, and an EU summit next week, there is still time to try to manoeuvre her deal through somehow. Among other proposals which could be discussed on Wednesday is a plan for the UK to leave without a formal agreement but with a number of safeguards to minimize economic disruption. The plan, known as the Malthouse compromise, is backed by Brexiteer members of the European Research Group of Tory MPs, as well as the DUP and former Remain ministers like Nicky Morgan and Damian Green. It would see the controversial backstop replaced by alternative arrangements, a new transition agreement and a series of “standstill” economic arrangements until the end of 2021. Amid reports Brexiteer ministers are demanding a free vote on this proposal, Tory MP Steve Baker told reporters the plan which would see Brexit delayed until 22 May was “eminently reasonable”. But Tory former minister Nick Boles said this would amount to a no-deal exit and the EU would not agree to it. The government has set out more details of what it would do to attract trade and protect businesses in the event of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement. Under a temporary scheme 87% of imports by value would be eligible for zero-tariff access up from 80% at present. Tariffs would be maintained to protect some industries, including agriculture. The government also announced it will not introduce any new checks or controls, or require customs declarations for any goods moving from across the border from Ireland to Northern Ireland if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. The decision to drop all checks to avoid friction at the UK’s land border with the EU will be temporary while longer term solutions are negotiated.