Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer has pointed out, despite claims the government was trying to make changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, not one word has changed since it was first proposed to the House of Commons.
He said the tactic was an attempt to ‘run down the clock’ to force MPs to decide between Theresa May’s deal and no deal.
Starmer claimed the government was ignoring the desires of Tory MPs for legally binding changes to the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.
The backstop arrangement aims to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit, and would mean some regulations relating to Northern Ireland remain aligned with the rest of the EU.
MPs voted in January for changes to the backstop and talks are taking place with the EU.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Keir said: ‘It’s clear from the debate yesterday that some on the government benches have a high expectation that legally binding changes may yet be agreed even at the 11th hour.
‘Against that background, can the Secretary of State confirm that while discussions have taken place about workstreams and possible additional words to further explain the backstop, in the 30 days since the Brady amendment the government has not drafted or put forward to the EU any proposed words that could conceivably be described as legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement in relation to the backstop?’
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said ‘live discussions’ need to be given space, adding: ‘What we have been very clear about with the European Union, as the prime minister set out in her statement on Tuesday, is the effect of these changes have to be legally binding – that is what the Brady amendment required and that is what the clear will of the House has been.
‘That is the crux of the issue we’re discussing with the European Union.’
Sir Keir shot back: ‘This may be Brexit questions but it’s clearly not Brexit answers. The Secretary of State can evade all he likes but his evasion tells its own story.
‘He knows and I know that the government is not even attempting to change a single word in the Withdrawal Agreement about the backstop, and he knows the expectation on his side that there are going to be those changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘Can the Secretary of State not simply admit that the only plan the government has is to run down the clock and to attempt to force MPs to choose between the same basic deal as was rejected at the first meaningful vote and no deal?’
Barclay rejected Sir Keir’s ‘run down the clock’ suggestion and outlined how a vote on a no-deal Brexit would take place ‘if the meaningful vote does not go through on March 12’.
He added: ‘It’s also not in the government’s interest to run down the clock because we also then need to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement Bill prior to leaving and therefore we need time for that ratification to take place.’
Ministers earlier came under fresh pressure to say how they would vote if a motion on ruling out a no-deal Brexit was put to a ballot.
Barclay refused to say if he, the prime minister and other Conservative MPs would back it when Labour raised the topic.