Brexit Committee descends into bitter row over plan that could delay EU withdrawal

Committee member and prominent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg MP attacked others in the group as 'high priests of Remain'

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Sunday 18 March 2018 01:11 GMT
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An influential Commons committee has become mired in a bitter row after Leave members refused to back its report recommending a potential delay to Brexit and extending the transition period afterwards.

After they fell out with Remain backing members of the Brexit Committee, the group was forced to publish two sets of recommendations on Sunday.

Prominent Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is a member, attacked others in the group as the “high priests of Remain”, claiming they had attempted to force through a “partisan” document.

The committee’s Labour chair Hilary Benn said the divisions demonstrated just how difficult achieving an agreement on Brexit will be.

The group was set to call for an "extension to the Article 50 time", which dictates the UK will formally leave the EU in March 2019, in order to ensure a comprehensive agreement can be reached.

Their report was also due to back a provision in withdrawal arrangements to allow the transition period after departure, to be extended beyond the 21 months currently set, “if necessary”.

Mr Benn highlighted that the extension would likely be needed because with just seven months left to reach an agreement, a host of highly complex issues remain.

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He said: “While the committee welcomes the progress that has been made in some areas, the Government faces a huge task when the phase two talks actually begin.

“The Government must now come forward with credible, detailed proposals as to how it can operate a ‘frictionless border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because at the moment, the committee is not persuaded that this can be done at the same time as the UK is leaving the single market and the customs union.”

But the committee split on a series of votes over the content of its report on the progress of withdrawal negotiations.

Mr Rees-Mogg and fellow Conservatives Sir Christopher Chope, Andrea Jenkyns, Craig Mackinlay, and John Whittingdale, along with the DUP’s Sammy Wilson refused to sign off the final version.

They used parliamentary procedures to ensure a “minority” report was included in the publication of the main text, a move rarely used.

Mr Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Brexit-supporting Tory European Research Group, said the committee’s majority report was effectively a “prospectus for the vassal state”.

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He went on: “It is a future not worthy of us as a country, and I am sure that Theresa May will rightly reject a report by the high priests of Remain.

“The majority report would keep us in the customs union and the single market which is an attempt to keep us in he EU by sleight of hand. Those of us who respect the instructions the people gave us in the referendum could not support so partisan a text.”

The minority report said 21 months is “ample” time and warned a prolonged transition period “would be difficult for the UK and would not respect the referendum result”.

It says the UK would still be bound by EU rules and would have to hand over cash with no say on how it is spent if the implementation arrangements are extended.

Mr Whittingdale, vice chairman of the committee, said: “I am very disappointed that the committee was unable to produce a unanimous report and instead divided along the same lines as in the referendum campaign.

“For a number of us the chairman’s report was far too negative and we do not believe that its conclusions are borne out by the evidence we heard.”

It follows an earlier report this week from the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which concluded Ms May’s pledge of no hard border after Brexit can only be achieved if the UK remains aligned with EU rules for the foreseeable future.

It said there is “no evidence” of a technical solution to allow Northern Ireland to break free from the customs union and single market without the return of border posts and checks.

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