The government’s defeat in the House of Lords over Brexit will not derail the Brexit process, ministers have vowed.
The Lords called on the government to look at ways of staying in the EU customs union – a move that would enable goods to flow more freely, but would prevent the UK signing any new trade deals with other countries.
A huge majority of peers in the unelected House of Lords are opposed to Brexit, and critics say the latest move is an attempt to undermine the democractic will of the British people, as expressed in the referendum.
Conservative peer Lord Forsyth said: “What is going on here is an exercise by Remainers in the House who refuse to accept the verdict of the British people and I believe they are playing with fire.”
Brexit minister Lord Callanan said the Government did not support the Lords amendment and would seek to overturn it in the House of Commons.
He said: “We have set out our two potential options for a future customs relationship with the EU, but these amendments would send a signal that the Government won't seek to negotiate them and instead pursue an outcome the Government has ruled out,” he said.
Nerve agent attack brings sides closer
Meanwhile the horrific nerve agent on attack Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury could spell the start of a new cold war – but it may be the catalyst for warmer relations between the UK and EU on Brexit.
It’s early days yet, but the Russian attack prompted not just widespread condemnation from Europe, but also the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats across the EU.
Theresa May received a noticeably warm welcome from leaders when she arrived in Brussels for the EU summit to ratify the newly-negotiated transition deal – a far cry from a year ago, when she was almost ignored.
It heralds a more positive note to the start of Brexit trade talks, which have now got under way.
The Salisbury attack was not just an unprecedented attack on a European nation, but one that saw the UK go to extraordinary lengths to share intelligence with its EU allies.
According to newspaper reports, the UK divulged “unprecedented levels of intelligence” to convince member states that Russia was behind the attack.
‘Huge degree of standing’
The move won not only vital support, but also reassured – and perhaps reminded – EU allies that when it comes to security, the UK would always remain at the heart of Europe.
In a parliamentary debate, Conservative MP and deputy party chairman James Cleverly, said the response to the Salisbury attack “shows she has a huge degree of standing amongst our European friends”.
He added: “It bodes well for a pragmatic and mutually beneficial conclusion to these Brexit negotiations.”
The Salisbury attack on 4 March came just two weeks before UK and EU negotiators reached a breakthrough on a draft transition deal.
Although the UK will officially leave the EU in exactly 12 months’ time (29 March 2019), almost everything will stay exactly the same until the transition period ends on 31 December 2020.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier went out of his way to congratulate Theresa May at the summit, saying the transition deal marked a “decisive” moment in “this difficult and extraordinary negotiation”.
“We have reached an agreement on the transition period, which the European Council agreed to in principle in December. It will be of limited duration as requested by UK and EU,” M Barnier said.
As well as the transition deal, negotiating guidelines for the next stage of the talks were ratified by the 27 EU leaders after Theresa May left the summit.
The guidelines called for the EU to have “as close as possible a partnership” with the UK in future, covering trade and economic co-operation as well as the fight against terrorism and international crime, security, defence and foreign policy.
Some hard-line Brexiteers accused the government of caving in too easily on the implementation period, as it is officially known, conceding on issues such as freedom of movement, which will continue until the end of the transition.
The right to control fishing in UK territorial waters has also been surrendered during this period – much to the anger of fisherman, allowed to keep just 30% of the total catch in British waters under EU rules.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called it a “massive sell-out”, while Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives and touted by many as a possible future Tory leader, blamed the EU for not being willing to shift on the issue.
“During these negotiations, we wanted to gain control over our waters from as early as the end of next year,” she said. “The EU was not willing to move on this. That we now have to wait until 2020 to assume full control is an undoubted disappointment,” she said. Ironically, both Sturgeon and Davidson are hard-line Remainers.
Ireland ‘backstop’ clause
On Ireland, both sides agreed to kick the can further down the road, although the UK agreed a Brussels ‘backstop’ that in the event of no trade deal, Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU customs union.
The fact that this was not an issue for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which supports the Conservative party in parliament, is due to the catch-all mantra that underlies the Brexit talks – ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.
However, the EU did concede the right for the UK not just to negotiate but also sign trade deals with other countries during the transition. With countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand keen to do deals, that can only be good news for British exporters.
Overall, both Brexiteers and Remainers in Theresa May’s cabinet seem pleased with the outcome, which gives UK businesses confidence they can continue to trade under the same rules until the end of 2020.
Strengthen UK’s hand
Combined with Mrs May’s tough action on Russia after the Salisbury attack – in stark contrast to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s craven approach – the UK government suddenly looks stronger than at any time since the last general election. No-one is now talking about Mrs May being ousted any time soon – and that can only strengthen the UK’s negotiating hand.
News of the deal on 19 March boosted the pound against both the euro (€1.14) and the dollar ($1.41), and sterling is now (28 March 2018) trading at higher levels than before the Brexit referendum.
David Lamb, head of dealing at FEXCO Corporate Payments, said: “The contrast with the news from Moscow couldn’t have been greater. From Russia, an election result that was written up a month ago, from Brussels an agreement that was all but written off until yesterday.
“The pound’s reflexive jump was magnified by the element of surprise. Few market-watchers had expected an agreement at all, let alone such an apparent convergence of the British and EU positions.
“While this is just one step on the long road to Brexit, the warmth of the language – and the common ground on some of the trickiest elements – suggest the two sides are, for once, heading in the same direction.”
New legal threat
Meanwhile barrister Gina Miller is continuing her fight to block Brexit following claims that disgraced consultancy Cambridge Analytica – accused of influencing the US elections while working with Facebook – may have targeted the Brexit referendum in the same way by planting ‘fake news’.
However, former Cambridge staffer Christopher Wylie was accused by MPs at a House of Commons hearing of staging a “vendetta” after being turned down to work for Vote Leave before the big vote.
There have also been claims that Vote Leave spent more than its legally-allowed £7m budget by channelling £625,000 into a group called BeLeave during the campaign, but used the cash for Vote Leave activities.
Miller, who led the legal challenge to force parliament to vote on triggering Article 50 to leave the EU, is now demanding a second referendum on the final Brexit deal.
“I am now even more convinced that there must be a people’s vote on the Brexit deal, including an option to remain, or remain voters will have good reason to shout foul play,” she wrote in the Guardian.
‘Complete red herring’
However, Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC Miller’s call for a second referendum was “a complete red herring” and that she was trying to subvert the Brexit vote.
And former cabinet minister Priti Patel has demanded an investigation into a possible breach of spending rules by Vote Remain.
Ms Patel claimed there was “significant evidence” of collusion between the pro-EU camps and has demanded a full investigation.
She also attacked the decision by former prime minister David Cameron to spend £9m of taxpayers’ money on a campaign leaflet encouraging people to vote Remain.
She said it was “breaking the normal rules of fair play of our democratic system” and that remain campaigners “used every organ of the British state to try to bully people into staying in the EU”.
The pro-Remain Liberal Democrats have already been fined £18,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking the referendum spending rules.
‘A strong and united country’
Prime minister Theresa May has been visiting all the nations of the United Kingdom to mark the 12-month countdown to Brexit.
“I am determined that our future will be a bright one,” she said, speaking before she set off on her whistlestop tour.
“It’s a future in which we trade freely with friends and partners across Europe and beyond. Having regained control of our laws, our borders and our money, and seized the opportunities provided by Brexit, the UK will thrive as a strong and united country that works for everyone, no matter whether you voted Leave or Remain.”