Theresa May heckled as she denies 'running down the clock' on Brexit

February 12, 2019

Theresa May has denied she is trying to "run down the clock" on Brexit, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the prime minister of "blackmailing" MPs into supporting her "deeply flawed deal".

Returning to the Commons to update MPs on the latest Brexit developments, Mrs May faced claims she was playing for time with 45 days until Britain is due to leave the European Union.

She also sparked a row by setting out plans to potentially short-circuit parliamentary rules in order to get a deal ratified by the end of March.

The prime minister told parliament she "wanted to have this sorted before Christmas", a claim which prompted howls of derision given it was the government that decided to delay the original vote on the withdrawal agreement in December.

The vote eventually took place in January and the result was an historic defeat for Mrs May.

She is now battling to secure changes to the most controversial aspect of her withdrawal agreement - the Irish border backstop - in a bid to win over sceptical MPs and get a deal through parliament.

The backstop is an insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event that Britain and the EU cannot agree a free trade deal in time.

Mrs May acknowledged she needed "some time" to get legally-binding changes to the arrangement, something which Brussels has thus far resisted.

"We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time," she told MPs.

"By getting the changes we need to the backstop; by protecting and enhancing workers' rights and environmental protections; and by enhancing the role of parliament in the next phase of negotiations, I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support.

"We can deliver for the people and the communities that voted for change two-and-a-half years ago - and whose voices for too long have not been heard."

The prime minister said that a Commons debate on Thursday will be on an amendable motion reaffirming the Commons' vote at the end of last month to support the government's efforts to replace the backstop with "alternative arrangements".

After this, in the event that a revised deal has not been secured, Mrs May would again face MPs on 26 February to report back on progress and trigger another vote the following day.

Mr Corbyn said the PM was "running down the clock" with the aim of ensuring MPs are "blackmailed" by the fear of a no-deal exit into backing "a deeply flawed deal".

The Labour leader said this was an "irresponsible act", adding: "She is playing for time and playing with people's jobs, our economic security and the future of our industry."

Mr Corbyn said the PM was refusing to listen to his alternative plan for a customs union with the EU.

"I urge all members across this House to think about the damage the prime minister's strategy is doing - the threat to industry and skilled jobs in communities across Britain," he said.

"Now is not the time to stand idly by, now is the time to stand up and do the right thing: to rule out no deal and back Labour's alternative plan."

There were fractious scenes involving Mrs May and the SNP's Westminster leader Ian Blackford, with the latter almost being thrown out of the chamber for calling Mrs May a "liar".

Later in proceedings, Mrs May was warned by Conservative MP and former attorney general Dominic Grieve that time was running short for any deal to be ratified.

In response, the prime minister said she would enable the Commons to lift a requirement for a 21-day delay before any vote to approve an international treaty.

"In most circumstances, that period may be important in order for this House to have an opportunity to study that agreement," she said.

"But of course, in this instance MPs will already have debated and approved the agreement as part of the meaningful vote.

"So while we will follow normal procedure if we can, where there is insufficient time remaining following a successful meaningful vote, we will make provision in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill - with parliament's consent - to ensure that we are able to ratify on time to guarantee our exit in an orderly way."

Labour said the idea "shows contempt for our democracy", with the party’s shadow Brexit minister Paul Bloomfield accusing the government of "trying to avoid proper scrutiny".

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