Prime Minister is questioned on amendment to EU withdrawal bill allowing Government to change date of Brexit
By Peter Walker, Political Correspondent
Guardian Online – 20 December 2017
Theresa May has said that an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill allowing the Government to change the date of Brexit will be used only in “extremely exceptional circumstances”. May was pressed during PMQs on Wednesday by two strongly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs over the amendment, which ministers hope will avoid another defeat on the Bill for the Government later on Wednesday.
Other Tory MPs have expressed disquiet at a Government amendment enshrining the date of Brexit as 29 March 2019, saying this is overly inflexible. The Government appears set to accept a change to this amendment by another Conservative, Oliver Letwin, allowing the date to be changed.
Julian Lewis, the New Forest East MP, told May he was concerned at the Letwin plan.
“May I seek an assurance from the Prime Minister that its provisions to change the date of leaving the EU will be invoked only, if at all, under extremely exceptional circumstances, and only for a very short period?”
he said. May responded:
“I am quite happy to give my right honourable friend and others that reassurance. We’re very clear – we will be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019, at 11pm. The Bill that is going through does not determine that the UK leaves the EU – that’s part of the Article 50 process, and is a matter of international law.”
The Letwin change would help ensure the UK had
“the same position legally as the European Union”
over Brexit, she said. May added:
“But I can assure my right honourable friend and the house: we would only use this power in exceptional circumstances, for the shortest possible time, and an affirmative motion would be brought to the house.”
Soon afterwards she was pressed on the same issue by John Baron, the Tory MP for Basildon and Billericay. He asked:
“If the power is used at all, could she assure the House it would only be used for a matter of weeks or months at the maximum, a couple of months and no longer? Because there is a concern that it could indefinitely extend our stay within the EU.”
“I can assure my honourable friend that … if it were the case that this would be used, it would only be in extremely exceptional circumstances, and it would be for the shortest possible time.”
The exchange highlights the competing demands May faces over the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will complete the Committee Stage of the Commons late on Wednesday. On the one side she has remain-minded MPs such as Dominic Grieve, whose amendment giving the Commons a final vote on any Brexit deal was passed last week, against the wishes of ministers, while on the other she has MPs such as Baron and Lewis, who worry May is granting too many concessions.