Leading Cabinet Brexiteer Liam Fox has lashed out at moves by MPs to rewrite the Commons rulebook in an attempt to “hijack” Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
The International Trade Secretary angrily accused backbenchers of trying to “steal” Brexit from the British people who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
At least two cross-party groups of MPs are planning to table amendments to enable backbenchers to take control of the business of the House to delay or frustrate Theresa May’s Brexit plans.
One group including senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory former minister Nick Boles is backing a bill to suspend the Article 50 withdrawal process if there is no new deal with Brussels by the end of February.
A second, led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve, has tabled an amendment to enable backbenchers to choose to debate and vote on Brexit issues, one day a week – breaking with the convention that the Government controls the parliamentary timetable.
Dr Fox warned that the political consequences if Parliament went back on the referendum result would be “astronomical”.
“You’ve got a Leave population and a Remain Parliament,” he told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“Parliament has not got the right to hijack the Brexit process because Parliament said to the people of this country, ‘We make a contract with you, you will make the decision and we will honour it’.
“What we are now getting is some of those who always absolutely opposed the result of the referendum trying to hijack Brexit and in fact steal the result from the people.”
Downing Street described the moves as “extremely concerning” and said they underlined the need for MPs who supported Brexit to vote for it in the House.
However Labour MP Hilary Benn, who chairs the Commons Brexit committee and is backing the Cooper-Boles plan, rejected claims that MPs were behaving unconstitutionally.
“MPs doing their job are not plotters, they are trying to sort out the mess the Prime Minister has created,” he told The Andrew Marr Show.
“We are facing a national crisis and there are many MPs in the House of Commons whose first priority is to ensure that we do not leave without a deal.”
Mr Grieve said he wanted to use the debating time controlled by backbenchers to enable the House to indicate what sort of Brexit it would support.
“My intention is not to stop Brexit. My intention has always been to try to ensure that the Government is forced to listen to what the majority view of the House of Commons is on this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.
The row erupted as Mrs May was preparing to brief Cabinet ministers on her talks with other party leaders and senior MPs following the crushing defeat of her Brexit deal last week in the Commons.
Dr Fox said one way to break the deadlock could be an agreement with the Irish Government on an “alternative mechanism” to the backstop, intended to ensure there is no hard border with Northern Ireland, which is a key stumbling block for many MPs.
“I’m not asking them to change their position. We actually agree that no matter what, there should be an agreement that ensures that there’s no hard border between the United Kingdom and Ireland,” he said.
“The question is can we achieve what the Irish Government wants and what we want by a different mechanism?”
Earlier however, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney reiterated that Dublin remained committed to the Withdrawal Agreement in its entirety, including the backstop.
“The Irish Government’s commitment to the entire Withdrawal Agreement is absolute – including the backstop,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Prime Minister, who is spending the weekend at her official country retreat at Chequers, is due to make a statement to MPs on Monday setting out how she intends to proceed with Brexit after the tumultuous events of last week.
She will also table a “neutral” motion – which is expected to attract a flurry of amendments from MPs – which will be debated and put to a vote on January 29.
Meanwhile, Labour backbencher David Lammy has warned his party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn he risks a historic split comparable to the SDP breakaway in the 1980s unless he backs a second referendum.
“There is a small group in our party who are so frustrated, who have so much grievance, the fear is that they are going to go off and form another party,” he told Ridge On Sunday.
“I personally reject that. But the danger is that, just like 1983, a new party built around a relationship with Europe keeps the Labour Party out of power for a generation.”