Brexit high noon as Philip Hammond leads rebels' charge to battle Boris Johnson's deal

JOE MURPHY, NIcholas Cecil
Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street: PA

Philip Hammond today led a charge of Tory rebels aiming to force Boris Johnson into key concessions to prevent “a blind leap into the abyss of a no-deal Brexit”.

Speaking out ahead of a vote in Parliament, the former chancellor warned that his support depended on being given assurances that Britain would not be forced to crash out of its current smooth trading arrangement in December 2020 unless Parliament agreed.

The Prime Minister came out on the front foot this morning, telling aides he wanted to personally open the make-or-break Commons debate that will decide whether he stands any chance of meeting his “do or die” deadline of Brexit by October 31.

A senior source said the PM would strike a “conciliatory tone” and stress the “need for the whole House to come together today to get this deal done so we can leave with a great deal”.

Mr Hammond, along with a string of senior former ministers such as Amber Rudd and Justine Greening, were waiting to hear Mr Johnson’s words before deciding how they will vote in the two Commons divisions this evening.

Philip Hammond is waiting to hear Mr Johnson's words before deciding how he will vote in the Commons (AFP/Getty Images)

It was uncertain whether the Prime Minister would win a vote, which is critical to his hopes of keeping his promised exit date, for a “breakneck” three-day timetable for the Commons to study the complex 110-page Withdrawal Agreement Bill that was published for the first time last night.

In key developments:

  • European Council President Donald Tusk made clear that the EU will grant an extension to Article 50, undermining Downing Street’s claims that a no-deal Brexit on October 31 is a risk if MPs do not back the Bill. He revealed: “As I said to [Mr Johnson] on Saturday, a no-deal Brexit will never be our decision.”
  • Former international development secretary Rory Stewart signalled he plans to vote against the programme motion setting out the short timetable for scrutiny, as did Labour and other opposition parties. Government sources said it would be “a tight vote”.
  • DUP opposition to the deal hardened after an official report revealed firms will be landed with fees and red tape to send goods and food to Northern Ireland. Members of the 10-strong group of Northern Irish MPs said they will oppose both the timetable and the Bill in tonight’s votes.
  • Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Those MPs who want to deliver Brexit will be voting with the Government today,”
  • EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier said no more renegotiations will be allowed by the EU, whatever happens in Westminster. “If Britain wants an orderly exit — which is far better than a disorderly exit — then this is the only possible agreement,” he said.

Writing in today’s Evening Standard, Mr Hammond said the Bill clearly needed “significant amendment in committee” in several areas, including reducing the impact on Northern Ireland and gold-plating a commitment by the Prime Minister to involve Parliament in the next set of negotiations, on trade, which start after Brexit.

European Council president Donald Tusk made clear that the EU will grant an extension (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

The big question was whether the Prime Minister would willingly give concessions or go into battle over a longer committee stage for scrutiny and amendments.

A No 10 source said: “There is one guaranteed way to avoid leaving the EU without a deal, and that’s to vote for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and the programme motion today that will allow us to deliver Brexit by October 31. That is not some arbitrary date plucked out of the sky, that is the deadline handed to us by the EU in a legally binding international agreement.”

The source went on: “If MPs don’t vote with us today, this is an active vote to frustrate Brexit. It is another vote to kick the can down the road and another vote for indecision and uncertainty.”

Labour’s shadow cabinet this morning decided to vote against both the Bill and the timetable motion. It left Mr Johnson relying on Labour rebels to come out in order to achieve the 320 votes needed for a guaranteed majority in the Commons.

Dominic Raab arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street (AP)

Tory rebels are seeking to abolish clause 30 of the Bill that would mean Britain defaults to no-deal if a trade agreement with the EU cannot be sealed by December 2020.

Former Conservative Mr Stewart, now an Independent, revealed that he and others of the 21 rebels sacked over backing an amendment to rule out a no-deal had been negotiating “through the night” for Parliament to be given more control over the next phase of the Brexit negotiations. “I think there is a bigger prize which is making sure that any parliament that is sitting has proper control over the mandate for the future trading negotiations,” Mr Stewart told the BBC.

“Parliament should be involved in the mandate, the progress of those and the outcome and determining the extension.”

Tory chairman James Cleverly disagreed. “When MPs claim we don’t have enough time to debate the Withdrawal Agreement Bill it is worth remembering that we’ve had over 500 hours of Brexit debate and the Speaker said that a debate on the deal today would be ‘repetitive and disorderly’,” he said.

Sir Oliver Letwin, who moved Saturday’s amendment that killed of a meaningful vote on Mr Johnson’s deal, was expected to back the Bill and the timetable along with colleagues such as Alistair Burt.

Brexiteer Marcus Fysh tweeted: “Hypocrite MPs who rammed through their Surrender Act in a day to scupper Brexit, but now whine about having three days to pass the implementing Bill for Boris Johnson’s deal so the country can leave the EU on 31 Oct as he promised. The country sees you.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said Parliament must be given an opportunity to properly scrutinise the Government’s Brexit Bill.

“Parliament has to be at the centre of everything that happens because that’s what we were doing, weren’t we? Taking back control,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.