Theresa May's deputy plays down cabinet split on Brexit after senior ministers vote against government

David Lidington insists ‘entire cabinet’ now supports delaying EU withdrawal, despite seven cabinet ministers voting against it

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Friday 15 March 2019 10:14
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Moment MPs vote to delay Brexit until 30 June - if MPs approve the Prime Minister's deal

Theresa May’s deputy has played down talk of a cabinet split, despite seven of the prime minister’s top team voting against her in a key Brexit vote.

David Lidington insisted the “entire cabinet” had accepted that Britain would seek to delay Brexit, despite seven cabinet ministers voting against the proposal last night.

The Cabinet Office minister said Eurosceptic colleagues who opposed the plan had wanted to express “how unhappy they were” with the UK being forced to ask the EU for an extension to the Article 50 period.

Ms May had given Conservative MPs a free vote on the issue in a bid to avoid a mass rebellion, prompting seven cabinet ministers, 27 junior ministers and 11 party whips to vote against the government’s motion.

Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay, Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, defence secretary Gavin Williamson and international trade secretary Liam Fox all rejected the proposal for an extension, as did transport secretary Chris Grayling, international development secretary Penny Mordaunt and Treasury chief secretary Liz Truss.

But despite the vote having exposed a major cabinet split, Mr Lidington insisted that the cabinet was united on the way forward.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “It was a free vote yesterday, which means that there was no whipping and MPs were free to vote in accordance with their conscience.

“While it’s for individual colleagues to say why they voted the way they did, I think for a number of my colleagues who campaigned strongly in favour of leaving the European Union, they used this as an opportunity to register how unhappy they were with being in a position where we don’t really have an option but to seek an extension of our time in the European Union.”

Mr Barclay, the Brexit secretary, voted against Ms May’s motion despite having wrapped up the debate for the government and urged MPs to support the proposal.

He finished his speech to the Commons by saying: “It is time for this House to act in the national interest, it’s time to put forward an extension that is realistic. I commend the motion put forward by the government to the House.”

He then voted against the government motion, which proposed a delay to Brexit until at least June.

Mr Lidington defended the Brexit secretary, saying: “It was a free vote in that division yesterday. Now what happens this morning is that the entire cabinet has accepted the position that parliament voted for last night.

“I’ve been working very constructively with Steve Barclay since his appointment a couple of months ago, despite the fact that he and I were vigorously on opposite sides of the debate during the referendum, and we’re continuing to work very constructively together today and in the days to come.”

Under the terms of the motion passed by MPs, the government will seek to delay Brexit until 30 June if the Commons approves a withdrawal agreement by 20 March.

If no exit plan is agreed by that date, however, it is likely to seek a much longer extension – possibly up to two years.

Ms May is expected to hold a third “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal early next week before travelling to Brussels on Thursday for an EU summit, where she is likely to formally request the extension from EU leaders.

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