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Brexit: May and Corbyn meet after PMQs clash

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Media captionJeremy Corbyn and Theresa May clash over Brexit policies

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn warmed up for their long-awaited meeting to discuss the way ahead on Brexit by clashing in the House of Commons.

At Prime Minister’s Questions the Labour leader repeatedly urged Mrs May to rule out a no-deal Brexit and to ditch her “red lines” in any upcoming talks with Brussels.

Mrs May hit back by saying that Mr Corbyn “has no plan for Brexit”.

The pair later met privately to seek common ground on Brexit.

The meeting, in the prime minister’s Commons office, lasted 45 minutes.

A Labour spokesman said there was a detailed and useful exchange between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn and the prime minister was “seriously engaged” on the details.

The pair have agreed to meet again soon, he added.

Mr Corbyn agreed to the meeting after MPs voted against the idea of a no-deal Brexit on Tuesday evening. He had previously ruled out such a meeting unless Mrs May ruled out a no-deal Brexit herself.

At PMQs, he said the prime minister may have succeeded in “temporarily uniting her very divided party” in Tuesday’s votes on amendments to her plan but she had to make “more important compromises” to “unite the country”.

Mrs May said Mr Corbyn was a “fine one to talk about coming together”, when he had only now agreed to meet her.

She said the majority of MPs had identified the Irish backstop as the main sticking point preventing them from backing her deal, whereas Mr Corbyn’s Brexit proposals had been rejected.

“He has no plan for Brexit, no good plan for our economy and no plan for our country,” she told MPs.

But the PM received a stark warning from Dublin over her future plans for the backstop.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said anyone who allowed the “borders and divisions of the past” to return will be “judged harshly in history, and rightly so”.

He added: “There are some things that are more important than economic relationships and this is one of them.”

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Media captionBorder more important than ‘economic relationships’

MPs voted 317 to 301 in favour of changing the backstop plan – the section of Mrs May’s deal with the EU designed to avoid the return of Northern Ireland border checks.

Five amendments, including Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s bid to delay Brexit if Mrs May does not get her deal through Parliament, were defeated on Tuesday.

Mr Corbyn asked Mrs May whether, if she did not agree a deal with Brussels that MPs would support, she would back Labour’s proposals for a “a strong single market, comprehensive customs union and the guaranteeing of rights and protections rather than the alternative she has been threatening – to crash out with no-deal”.

Mrs May told him: “You cannot just vote to reject no deal, you have to support a deal.”

It was a message she repeated to Labour MP Jack Dromey, who together with Tory MP Caroline Spelman got MPs to back a non-binding amendment rejecting a no-deal Brexit on Tuesday.

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Later in the session, Nigel Dodds, leader of the Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party at Westminster, described remarks by the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on the UK’s approach to Brexit as “highly reckless and extremely dangerous”.

Mr Coveney likened the UK’s negotiating stance to “either you give me what I want or I’m jumping out the window”.

Mr Dodds said that kind of rhetoric needed “to be toned down”.

Mrs May said she will speak to Irish premier Leo Varadkar later on Wednesday.

“It is important for us to work with the Irish government on the arrangements that will be in place in the future,” she added.

But ahead of the call, Mr Varadkar told the Irish Parliament that the EU stood by the withdrawal agreement and renegotiation was not on the table.

At the moment, the UK is due to leave the European Union at 23:00 GMT on 29 March, with or without a deal.

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Media captionMr Corbyn: ‘We are prepared to meet her to put forward the points of view from the Labour Party’

The UK and the EU negotiated their withdrawal agreement deal over the past 18 months but it needs to be backed by MPs for it to come into force. Earlier this month MPs voted against the plan Mrs May had proposed by 432 votes to 202.

Mrs May said that, after taking Tuesday’s votes into account and talking to the EU, any revised deal would be brought back to the Commons “as soon as possible” for a second “meaningful vote”.

However, various EU leaders have suggested there will be no revisions to the deal, with European Council President Donald Tusk saying: “The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.”

Mr Tusk added the EU would, however, be willing to look at the political declaration again – the part of the deal that makes a pledge on the future relationship between the UK and the EU – and that the EU would “stand ready” to consider any “reasoned request” for an extension to the leave date of 29 March.

‘Expect the EU to stand firm for now’

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By BBC Europe Editor Katya Adler

After a public shout out of “No way!” to renegotiating the Brexit backstop/withdrawal agreement, the EU now waits for Theresa May to come to Brussels.

Parliament appeared to lob the ball back in the EU’s court last night, by uniting(ish) around a request for alternatives to the backstop but the EU is preparing to send the ball back pronto, with the question to the prime minister: Your negotiators and ours failed after 18 months to come up with a better bilaterally acceptable Irish border guarantee so what concrete alternative do you have worked out?

Expect the EU to stand firm for now and for some uncomfortable days ahead.

Brussels’ deadline is 29 March, whereas the prime minister has a self-imposed a deadline of mid-February when she says she wants to hold another parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal.

Brussels won’t rush to help her with that one. EU diplomats tell me she has to be more realistic.

They don’t want to budge on core backstop principles so no unilateral exit mechanism to the backstop is likely for the UK.

The EU intends to stonewall Theresa May until “the message is driven home”, I’m told.

Read more from Katya’s blog here.

As it stands, the backstop would effectively keep the UK inside the EU’s customs union, but with Northern Ireland also conforming to some rules of the single market.

It was one of the main reasons Mrs May’s Brexit deal was voted down in Parliament by an historic margin earlier in January as critics say a different status for Northern Ireland could threaten the existence of the UK and fear that the backstop could become permanent.

Mrs May has said there are several possible alternatives to the backstop that she wanted to discuss with EU leaders.

These include a “trusted trader” scheme to avoid physical checks on goods flowing through the border, “mutual recognition” of rules with the EU and “technological” solutions.

She also wants to discuss a time limit on the backstop and a “unilateral exit” mechanism – both options ruled out by the EU in the past.

May scores ‘unconventional win’

Theresa May was heading for another defeat, but she ended up with an unconventional win – a win nonetheless.

The Tory party that was visibly split in two a fortnight ago is giving the impression of being largely united, even if that is temporary.

Yet the prime minister only won because she gave into Brexiteer and DUP demands, by making a promise that she can’t be sure she can keep – one the EU says at the moment is impossible.

This process has for a long time been about No 10 stumbling, often seriously, then getting up again to try to take another step.

There is a valid question – to what end?

Read more from Laura’s blog here.

What happens next?

The prime minister has invited Tory MP Caroline Spelman, Labour MP Jack Dromey and others who tabled amendments to prevent a no deal to discuss how to move forward and secure a deal for Brexit.

She has also promised the government will “redouble its efforts to get a deal this House can support”.

The so-called Brady amendment could pave the way for a plan known as the “Malthouse compromise” as an alternative to the backstop.

Engineered by both Leavers and Remainers – and led by Tory minister Kit Malthouse – the proposal includes extending the transition period for a year and protecting EU citizens’ rights, instead of using the backstop.

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Media captionReality Check unpacks the basics of the backstop.

The deputy chairman of the pro-Leave European Research Group, Tory MP Steve Baker, said he hoped by the group giving its support to the amendment, MPs could “now make rapid progress towards the Malthouse compromise”.

But fellow ERG member Mark Francois warned there was no guarantee the group would back the PM, and said he would wait to see what she comes back with from Brussels.

The PM’s revised deal will return to the Commons to be voted on.

But, if it is again rejected, the government will table an amendable motion – meaning MPs can put forward more amendments as they did earlier – for debate the following day.

And if no new deal is agreed by Parliament by 13 February, she will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day.

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