Labour attacks Brexit date ‘gimmick’ as MPs begin scrutiny

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Media captionWhat’s going on with the EU Withdrawal Bill?

Several Tory MPs have joined Labour in demanding Theresa May withdraw a key Brexit legislation amendment to set the exact time of EU departure in law.

Ministers say being “crystal clear” about when the UK will leave on 29 March 2019 will give maximum certainty.

But ex-chancellor Ken Clarke said the move was “silly” while Dominic Grieve said it would “fetter” ministers’ hands if talks dragged on to the last minute.

Labour has branded it a “gimmick” and said it will vote against it.

The row came as MPs began debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in depth for the first time, a crucial piece of legislation paving the way for the UK’s withdrawal by essentially copying all EU law into UK law.

Tuesday’s marathon eight-hour debate is the first of eight sessions over the next month in which MPs will pore over the details of the government’s Brexit strategy and seek changes.

The government saw off the first challenge to the bill as Plaid Cymru’s call for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly to give their consent before the 1972 European Communities Act – which paved the way for the UK to originally join the then European Economic Community – can be repealed was defeated by 318 to 52 votes.

A government amendment to enshrine the Brexit date and time – 23:00 GMT on 29 March 2019 – in law, announced by Mrs May last Friday, will not be debated until the final day of the committee stage next month.

But it dominated the early skirmishes in the Commons as Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer said setting a date in law was a “desperate gimmick” that was “about party management not the national interest”.

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House of Commons

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Labour says it is a question of how, not if, the UK leaves the EU that matters

“The government’s amendments to their own Bill would stand in the way of an orderly transition and increase the chance of Britain crashing out of Europe without an agreement,” the shadow Brexit secretary said.

“Theresa May should stop pandering to the ‘no deal’ enthusiasts in her own party and withdraw these amendments.”

What is happening on Tuesday:

  • The EU Withdrawal Bill is entering its Committee stage – meaning MPs will scrutinise it line-by-line
  • First up is a four hour debate on the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act, the legislation that took Britain into the EU, or the EEC as it was then called
  • MPs could discuss a call for the UK to stay in the EU until a new treaty has been signed on its future relationship
  • Another amendment that has support is one that would give the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a bigger say
  • About 7pm: Four hours of debate on how to interpret 40 years of accumulated EU law in UK law
  • The future status of the European Court of Justice, which will cease to set UK laws on Brexit day, is also up for debate
  • MPs are due to vote at about 7pm and 11pm but the government is not expected to be defeated at this stage
  • A further seven days of debate have been scheduled in the run-up to Christmas, with the second day, on Wednesday, expected to include Labour’s calls for guarantees on workers’ rights and the environment.

But former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve said that fixing the precise time of withdrawal at this stage would “fetter” the government’s hands if negotiations dragged on longer than expected and the process needed to be extended in order to reach an agreement.

Describing it as a “mad” idea that had not been discussed by the cabinet, he said it had been “accompanied by blood-curdling threats that anyone who might stand in its way was somehow betraying the country’s destiny”.

“I am afraid I am just not prepared to go along with it,” he told MPs.

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