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Thursday 28 February 2019

More than a 100 pro-Brexit Conservative MPs defied a three-line whip last night over Yvette Cooper’s delaying amendment. 20 voted against, 88 abstained.

In spite of Theresa May’s announcement on Monday that there would be a vote to extend exit negotiations in the likely event her deal is rejected a second time on March 12, Labour MP Cooper refused to withdraw her amendment. Downing Street’s response was predictable. Tory MPs were told to vote for it. Former cabinet minister, Esther McVey was among those opposing the amendment. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jacob Rees-Mogg all abstained.

“It was an indication of our displeasure that she buckled so easily [over Article 50] in the face of pretty reprehensible tactics by certain government ministers,” one abstaining MP told the Telegraph.

A Labour amendment attempting to bind the government to its five Brexit demands – a direct translation of its impossible to pass “six tests” – failed, 323 t0 240.

Speaking on ITV’s Peston last night, John McDonnell said his party would put forward an amendment for a second referendum to next month’s meaningful vote (see tweet below). “It’s the right thing to do,” said the Shadow Chancellor. He couldn’t be further from the truth.

The rubicon has been crossed. It is no longer taboo for the overrepresented Remainers on the Tory benches to eventually side with Labour’s amendment. Twenty to thirty Labour MPs may defy the whip, but the odds of them being enough are short.

Over the Channel, Geoffrey Cox is still busy trying to find a magical legal mechanism to neuter the Irish backstop. In his professional opinion, the means by which the EU could keep Britain in the Customs Union forever and ever is only theoretical. Once it is triggered, the political headwinds will become too strong for Brussels to not agree to an alternative arrangement. Not good enough by a long long way. If it was, May’s deal might have sneaked a majority last month. Cox is in the EU capital to banish any possibility of the backstop becoming permanent.

The Spectator reveal that British negotiators under Cox’s supervision are now telling the EU what they want in the treaty and are providing the wording. Under Olly Robbins, Brussels’ bureaucrats were given free rein to draft everything. That will be a source of some optimism for approval from the Ulster Unionists, which the Prime Minister badly needs. But will it be enough?

“Relations are much better with the DUP, but everything depends on us securing a better deal in Brussels,” an ally of Mrs May told the FT. “There is some cause for hope.”

However, the FT also report EU diplomats believe their British counterparts are overly optimistic. They would say that of course, but there’s little reason to think any different. Now that negotiations are headed for an extension, the EU has the upper hand. Parliament can say what it wants, but under Article 50, talks can only be prolonged with the approval of the EU27. Be under no illusions, we will be held to ransom, and our Parliament will pay any price.

One of those countries is France. “If the British need more time, we will be able to examine a request for an extension if it’s justified by new choices on the part of the British,” said Emmanuel Macron at a press conference with Angela Merkel yesterday. Paris will not accept an extension “without a clear understanding of the aim that’s being pursued”.

Mr Macron is angling for a deeper relationship and he has the ticking clock on his side. We’re only two days into No Deal being ruled out and already we’re getting shafted.