RELIGIOUS leaders, including a former archbishop, have joined members of Parliament to call for alternatives to a no-deal exit from the European Union.
A citizens’ assembly, a people’s vote, and a second referendum, were among the ideas being promoted this week. At the same time, the Cabinet agreed to accelerate preparations for a no-deal on Brexit on 29 March, less than 100 days away.
Initial contingency plans included placing 3500 armed forces personnel on standby at ports and elsewhere; hiring 3000 customer-service staff in HM Revenue and Customs; and recruiting hundreds of border officers.
The European Commission published an outline no-deal contingency plan on Wednesday. The plan lists 14 measures to lower the risk of “major disruptions” in key areas for a limited grace period — nine months to a year — after the UK exits the EU. This covers flights between the UK and EU, road transport, customs, data protection, climate policy, and the rights of UK citizens living in the EU.
Theresa May has confirmed that MPs will not be invited to vote on her Brexit deal until 14 January. A debate will be held the previous week. In a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, after a “robust” European Council meeting, she defended the efforts and the finances involved in preparing for a non-deal Brexit.
She returned to the agreement that she had proposed earlier, however: “Let us not risk the jobs, services, and security of the people we serve by turning our backs on an agreement with our neighbours that honours the referendum and provides for a smooth and orderly exit. Avoiding no deal is only possible if we can reach an agreement, or if we abandon Brexit entirely.”
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was among 21 signatories to an article in The Guardian on Tuesday which called for a citizens’ assembly, to stop the UK “falling apart in constitutional chaos” over Brexit.
The plan described in the article is for a “randomly chosen representative group of up to 500 members of the public”, who meet to hear and debate the arguments surrounding an issue of national importance, before making recommendations to political representatives. It would take eight weeks to organise.
“Citizens’ assemblies operate around the world to create a neutral forum for evidence-based, participative decision-making,” the article explains. “In recent years, they have been used in Ireland, British Columbia, and Iceland, and in national and local government in the UK, as democratic ‘circuit-breakers’ on contentious and complex issues.”
The article warned: “Anger and resentment are growing, splitting families, communities and our country. Without a new intervention, the toxic culture which has infected public life will irrevocably damage democracy and the future for us all.”
Other signatories include the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines; Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner; and the novelist Ian McEwan.
Meanwhile, Frank Field MP, a committed Brexiteer, has tabled a motion asking for a Commons debate “very early in the New Year” on the Withdrawal Agreement and most of the potential alternatives.
“The public has a right to know how the House of Commons would vote on the different Brexit choices facing our country,” he said on Monday. “I am trying to ensure we have an opportunity as soon as possible to register our vote on a range of options, including a reformed Northern Irish ‘backstop’, leaving the European Union without a deal, extending Article 50, entering into a future Norway- or Canada-style relationship with the EU, and holding a new referendum.”
His six scenarios did not include an option to remain in the EU.
Key pledges in the Conservative manifesto may be axed to free up resources and allow staff to be reallocated, to cope with a no-deal scenario, it has been reported. The proposed overhaul of social-care funding to improve services, announced in June, is one early casualty. It was due to be set out in a Green Paper this year, but has been postponed to the New Year.
The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, explained: “A responsible government prepares for all contingencies, and that is why we’re stepping up no-deal planning.”
The Treasury has spent more than £4.2 billion on Brexit since 2016.
Speaking before a meeting with the leaders of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Mrs May urged MPs to back her deal: “It is more important than ever that the devolved administrations get behind this deal and listen to businesses and industry bodies across all four nations who have been clear that it provides the certainty they need.”
Downing Street dismissed a motion from the leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, on Tuesday, which called on MPs to declare “no confidence in the Prime Minister due to her failure to allow the House of Commons to have a meaningful vote straight away” on the Brexit deal. Mr Corbyn returned to the attack during Prime Minister’s Question on Wednesday.
A letter in The Daily Telegraph from 52 businesspeople, including Ronald Rudd (brother of Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary), said that Mrs May did not deserve personal attacks.
Government figures, however, showed that “every version of Brexit will make us worse off. . . If Parliament cannot agree on any form of Brexit urgently, we, as entrepreneurs and business people, writing in a personal capacity, call on the Prime Minister to take her deal to the British people.”
The Institute of Directors, CBI, EEF, British Chambers of Commerce, and Federation of Small Businesses said in a statement that businesses had been “watching in horror” as politicians focused on “factional disputes”. “The lack of progress in Westminster means that the risk of a no-deal Brexit is rising.”
The Government has sent letters to 140,000 firms urging them to plan ahead, and will distribute 100-page information packs on Friday.
The Home Secretary Sajid Javid published a long-awaited immigration White Paper on Wednesday, after a Cabinet row over imposing the £30,000-a-year minimum salary (currently imposed on non-EU workers) on EU migrants, post-Brexit.
The threshold is only recommended in the White Paper, which says: “We will engage businesses and employers as to what salary threshold should be set.”