The EU Withdrawal Bill will be amended to make sure the official date of Brexit is set in stone, the government has announced.
An ‘exit day’- March 29, 2019 - is to be inserted into the legislation after concerns were raised by both Brexiteers and Remain supporters that the UK’s departure departure date was not enshrined in law.
The government said it had “listened carefully” to debate and decided to table the amendment to “remove all doubt” and ensure the bill reflects what was set out in Theresa May’s Florence speech - but critics have dismissed it as simply “window-dressing”.
It comes as negotiations got underway in earnest again this week, with Brexit secretary Davis and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier set to hold a press conference in Brussels on Friday.
The move could be seen as an attempt by the PM to see off a potential rebellion from hard Brexiteers within her own party - many of whom feared the lack of an official exit date meant the UK would be “chained to the EU” for longer than planned - and softer Leave supporters who felt it left too much room to maneuver on the transition.
On the opposite benches, concerns have been raised by Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, who previously said a properly defined date was essential in determining when the rule of the European Court of Justice would be extinguished in Britain - and ensuring Parliamentarians were able to properly debate its repercussions.
“If exit day is in March 2019, it is difficult to see how we could transition on terms similar to those we are now on,” the former public prosecutor said.
“Control over exit day is therefore hugely important. Who will have that control?”
The House of Lords select committee on the constitution also questioned the ambiguity around the date in a statement last month.
“We are concerned that the power to define ‘exit day’ — a matter that is pivotal to the operation of the bill — is unduly broad in its scope and flexibility, and that it is not subject to any parliamentary scrutiny procedure,” members said.
In the original draft of the bill, exit day was defined as the day designated by the government, or “where a Minister of the Crown appoints a time as well as a day as exit day”.
Announcing the change of tack on Thursday evening, Brexit secretary David Davis said: “Our amendment makes it crystal clear that the UK is leaving the EU at 11pm on March 29, 2019. We’ve listened to members of the public and Parliament and have made this change to remove any confusion or concern about what ‘exit day’ means.
“This important step demonstrates our pragmatic approach to this vital piece of legislation. Where MPs can improve the bill, whatever their party, we will work with them.
“We look forward to further debate in the House of Commons when committee stage begins next week.”
James McGrory, executive director of pro-EU group Open Britain, said the move was nothing more than an attempt by the government to look like it was making progress.
“The negotiations remain firmly stuck in the mud,” he added.
“Though it is positive that ministers will not be able to unilaterally decide the day we leave the EU, the Withdrawal Bill is full of further hidden nasties that must be similarly dealt with for the House of Commons to even consider passing it.”
McGrory said the deadline underlines how little time is left to negotiate the UK’s divorce agreement, transition deal and scale of the future relationship.
He added: “This makes it all the more important that the British people can keep an open mind about Brexit, and that ministers acknowledge that Article 50 can be withdrawn, and that the option for the public to make a choice at the end of this process remains.”
Meanwhile, Lord Kerr, the author of Article 50, is expected to reveal in a speech on Friday that the Brexit process is reversible.
The former UK ambassador is expected to say: “We are not required to withdraw just because Mrs May sent her letter. We can change our minds at any stage during the process.”
The assertion was described by Lib Dem leader Vince Cable as a “significant development”.
“There is no longer any refuge for Brexiteers who argue that this whole process can’t be revoked,” he said.
“The possibility of an exit from Brexit is still very much on the cards.”