Brexit

Theresa May offers cross-party talks as she survives attempt to oust her as PM

Prime Minister Theresa May during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London on Wednesday. Picture by Mark Duffy, UK Parliament, Press Association
Andrew Woodcock and Gavin Cordon

Theresa May has survived an attempt to oust her as prime minister, as MPs rejected Jeremy Corbyn's motion of no confidence in the government by a margin of 325 to 306.

The prime minister's 19-vote victory came less than 24 hours after the crushing defeat of her EU Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons, and clears the way for her to start cross-party talks on a Brexit Plan B.

Conservative rebels and members of the DUP who consigned the PM to the worst defeat in parliamentary history on Tuesday, rallied behind her to see off the threat of a general election.

Welcoming the result, Mrs May told the Commons: "I am pleased that this House has expressed its confidence in the government.

"I do not take this responsibility lightly and my government will continue its work to increase our prosperity, guarantee our security and to strengthen our union.

"And yes, we will also continue to work to deliver on the solemn promise we made to the people of this country to deliver on the result of the referendum and leave the European Union."

She invited leaders of opposition parties to take part in individual meetings with her on the way forward for Brexit, starting on Wednesday evening.

Mrs May pledged to approach the talks "in a constructive spirit" and urged other parties to do the same, adding: "We must find solutions that are negotiable and command sufficient support in this House.

"The House has put its confidence in this government.

"I stand ready to work with any member of this House to deliver on Brexit and ensure that this House retains the confidence of the British people."

But Mr Corbyn responded: "Before there can be any positive discussions about the way forward, the government must remove clearly once and for all the prospect of the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit from the EU and all the chaos that would come as a result of that."

Mrs May is now due to set out her alternative plan for EU withdrawal to MPs on January 21.

But she risks losing control of the Brexit process, as she must table a motion which can be amended by MPs.

They are expected to use the opportunity to secure Commons support for a range of possible outcomes, from ruling out a no-deal departure or opting for Norway-style membership of the single market to a second referendum.

MPs on both the Remain and the Leave wings of the party warned she needed to make major changes to the deal if she is to get it through the Commons.

Mrs May confirmed she wanted to meet MPs from across Parliament before returning to the Commons on Monday to make a fresh statement on the way forward on Brexit.

She held talks with DUP leader Arlene Foster, who later described the discussions as "useful" and said she had made clear the Northern Irish party would "act in the national interest".

"Lessons will need to be learned from the vote in Parliament," said Mrs Foster.

"The issue of the backstop needs to be dealt and we will continue to work to that end."

There was anger on the Labour side after Downing Street said Mrs May remained committed to securing an "independent trade policy" after Brexit, effectively ruling out a customs union with the EU which Labour backs.

A senior Downing Street source said: "One of the principles as we approach these talks is that we want to be able to do our own trade deals. That is incompatible with either 'a' or 'the' customs union."

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "She is now laying conditions down about those discussions which look as though they will prevent any discussion of a permanent customs union.

"That is what most of the other opposition parties support so she seems to be negating the discussions before they have even started."

The Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom said ministers wanted to speak to MPs who were prepared to engage "constructively" but accused Mr Corbyn of trying to "disrupt" the government by attempting to force an election.

"He needs to come to the table and tell us what he wants to do. He has not put forward any specific constructive proposal and that is a problem," she said.

Responding to Mr Corbyn's no-confidence motion, Mrs May dismissed his call for a general election saying it would be "the worst thing we could do".

"It would deepen division when we need unity, it would bring chaos when we need certainty, and it would bring delay when we need to move forward," she told MPs.

Earlier, during Prime Minister's Questions, she appeared to leave open the door to a possible extension of the Article 50 withdrawal process, which will see Britain leave the EU on March 29, to allow more time for a deal.

Asked by Tory grandee Ken Clarke whether she would "modify her red lines" and extend Article 50, Mrs May said: "The government's policy is that we are leaving the EU on March 29, but the European Union would only extend Article 50 if actually it was clear that there was a plan that was moving towards an agreed deal.

"That is the crucial element of ensuring we deliver on Brexit."

Meanwhile, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said he "profoundly" regretted the Commons vote and added it was now up to the British government to say how it intended to proceed.

"An orderly withdrawal will remain our absolute priority in the coming weeks," he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

He said there would be a "favourable response" from the EU side if Mrs May was prepared to re-think her negotiating "red lines" and seek a more "ambitious" deal with Brussels.

But he firmly rejected calls from some Conservative MPs and the DUP to drop the Northern Ireland "backstop", intended to ensure there is no hard border with the Republic.

"The backstop which we agreed to with the UK must remain a backstop. It must remain a credible backstop," he said.

That view was echoed by Tánaiste Simon Coveney who said Dublin was not prepared to consider alternatives to a backstop which it had taken two years to negotiate.

"We're not going to allow physical border infrastructure to reappear," he told RTÉ.

"I don't think the EU is in any mood to change the Withdrawal Agreement significantly at all."

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