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Plan for MPs to get votes on seven Brexit options if Theresa May's deal defeated again

22 March

Number 10 is understood to be considering allowing parliament to vote on seven alternative options next week amid growing fears that Theresa May will not get her Brexit plan through the House of Commons.

A senior minister in the government told Sky News that plans are being drawn up to give MPs a choice between revoking Article 50, a second referendum, the prime minister's deal, her deal plus a customs union, the deal plus a customs union and single market access, a standard free-trade agreement, or a no-deal Brexit.
Another source confirmed to Sky News that senior figures within government had been speaking openly about getting behind the idea.
The source said that it was being considered as a "way to find a solution", given that it now looks likely that Mrs May's Brexit deal will be defeated for a third time next week.
The minister said Number 10 is in "panic mode" and fears Mrs May's deal will not win enough support to pass the Commons.
They are understood to be weighing up the series of indicative votes in the knowledge that, if they do not allow MPs the chance to explore alternatives, parliament could force the government to allow such votes anyway by taking control of the Brexit process.
The votes would not replace a so-called "meaningful vote" on the prime minister's deal, which has to be held next week in order to meet the terms of the extension offered to the UK by the EU.
Asked about the plan for indicative votes, a Downing Street source said the prime minister was bound by commitments made in the House of Commons.
David Lidington, Mrs May's de facto deputy, told MPs last week that they would have further chances to express their views on Brexit in the coming weeks.
After leaving talks with Mr Lidington at the Cabinet Office on Friday, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said they'd had "a very good business-like discussion".
He added: "We're considering how parliament can consider a very wide range of options - including revocation, including a people's vote.
"The fact we're trying to find a way through this is encouraging."
Earlier, Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng suggested Conservative MPs would not be ordered to vote for any particular Brexit option if indicative votes were held.
He told MPs: "If the House is being asked to decide a way forward, it would be surprising if those votes were not free votes."
This sparked anger from Tory Brexiteers with Mark Francois, the vice-chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative eurosceptics, telling Sky News: "If the government is going to allow unwhipped votes on indicative votes, if there is no government position on any of those issues about the future of our country, then there isn't really a government."
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, a fellow member of the ERG, posted on Twitter: "National humiliation is imminent through these 'indicative votes'.
"The wrong Conservatives have the levers of power."
Another Tory Brexiteer, Marcus Fysh, branded the proposal "the most ludicrous, childish and unrealistic idea I have ever seen", adding: "Utterly unfit."
Former Tory minister Nick Boles, who wants the UK to pursue a Norway-style relationship with the EU, called for MPs to be put in charge of defining the different options put to indicative votes.
Labour has tabled an amendment calling on the government to provide enough time next week for MPs to be given votes on Brexit alternatives.
Jeremy Corbyn said: "Following a series of meetings with MPs from all parties, EU leaders, businesses and trade unions, I am convinced that a sensible alternative deal can be agreed by Parliament, be negotiated with the EU and bring the public together, whether they voted leave or remain.
"It's time for Parliament to take control of the Brexit process from this failed prime minister, and end the chaos and confusion created by the Government's divisions and incompetence."
In a sign of the task on Mrs May's hands to win over opponents of her deal, the Democratic Unionist Party said the PM "putting the blame on others cannot disguise the responsibility her government bears for the current debacle".
The Northern Irish party, whose support is key to a deal getting through Parliament, accused the government of being "far too willing to capitulate" to the EU.
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "The prime minister missed an opportunity at the EU Council to put forward proposals which could have improved the prospects of an acceptable Withdrawal Agreement and help unite the country.
"That failure is all the more disappointing and inexcusable given the clear divisions and arguments which became evident amongst EU member states when faced with outcomes they don't like."

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EU is gambling that PM's red lines may not matter much longer

22 March

When Theresa May arrived in Brussels on Thursday morning, she regurgitated a phrase she's used many times before - that the UK may be leaving the EU, but it is not leaving Europe.

In addition to talking about a Brexit extension, she said she was looking forward to being involved in discussions on some of the "many challenges" the continent faces - be it the future strategy towards China, climate change or tackling online disinformation.
But as leaders gathered in the EU Council building for their "family photo" on Friday ahead of the talks on those issues taking place, Mrs May was nowhere to be seen.
The UK's voice was never heard in those discussions, because the prime minister had left Brussels hours earlier. She was already back in Downing Street by the time they got under way.
It followed a night during which the prime minister, who all of last week had struggled and croaked her way through statements with a sore throat, lost her voice in a much more profound sense.
The future options for Brexit were imposed upon her - with EU leaders listening to her pitch for more than 90 minutes, and then ultimately deciding she did not have a plan for what should happen if, as they all expected, she fails to pass the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in a meaningful vote next week.
Unwilling to return for an emergency summit on the eve of the original 29 March point of departure, they ditched the proposals Mrs May had arrived with - a request for an extension to 30 June - and told her instead she had to work to a new time frame entirely.
The new proposal: a 22 May departure if the meaningful vote passes next week, but otherwise an immovable deadline of 12 April to present a suggested change of approach to what will likely be an emergency EU summit in the week leading up to that date, or leave with no deal.
Mrs May was not part of that discussion either.
Obliged to sit in a separate room while decisions were made that will likely determine her political legacy and the country's future, her options were limited to whether she agreed or not.
The EU had calculated that for Mrs May, this was a Hobson's choice - for all the political pain that delay would cause her, she could not refuse. It appears they were right.
On accepting the terms, Mrs May announced her planned early departure from the summit, saying she remained determined to win support for her deal and would get straight to work to achieve that.
But assisting Mrs May's last-ditch lobbying efforts was not the primary purpose of the delay.
If anything, the new time frame appears to be designed more as a catalyst than a reprieve - neutering Mrs May's desired "my deal or no deal" ultimatum, and encouraging parliament to move quickly to take control of the agenda from the government.
In their public pronouncements departing the summit, most EU leaders conveyed a similar, largely anodyne message - that they have done all they can to help Mrs May, that they hope the Withdrawal Agreement can be passed, but that ultimately the choice is now for the UK parliament.
A senior EU official summed up the position like this: "The leaders are prepared to go very, very far to create the best possible circumstances for the UK to find a solution, but they are not prepared to go so far that it infects our own institutions."
But there were also plenty of hints as to what choice some in the EU seem to hope the UK parliament might make.
In a press conference, Irish PM Leo Varadkar said he hoped the delay would provide "breathing space" for indicative votes in parliament to see what alternative Brexit approach might command a majority.
In a post on Twitter, he went a little further, using the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Area (EEA) as an excuse to drop a rather clear hint as to which alternative approach he would like to see.
Praising the fact Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein are part of the economic but not the political union he wrote those states were "in the single market, but not in the EU. Sensible solutions are possible once red lines don't restrict them".
European Council President Donald Tusk said in his own social media post that the EEA offered "long-term partnership where all contribute and benefit", while Martin Selmayr, the Secretary General of the EU Commission, posted "a well-tested, successful model for close economic integration between the EU and its neighbours".
It will not have been lost on those EU figures that the EEA is the model on which a group of MPs in Westminster have worked up their so-called "Common Market 2.0" Brexit proposal, which would entail single market membership, but remaining outside the formal customs union.
The meetings Jeremy Corbyn held in Brussels yesterday, setting out his vision of Brexit with a customs union and single market access, would also have been fresh in the memory.
Mrs May has, of course, long ruled out single market membership because it would mean accepting continued freedom of movement.
She's long ruled out remaining in the customs union too, because it would prevent the UK having an independent trade policy.
But it seems the EU are gambling that the role Mrs May's red lines play in Brexit are soon to go the way of her voice.

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Venezuela: Plunged into anarchy - A city on edge after frenzied looting

22 March

Vigilantes are standing guard outside stores to prevent looting in Venezuela's second city, Maracaibo.

A fortnight after the city was plunged into anarchy with hundreds of civilians ransacking more than 500 shops and businesses, the city is still on edge.
It may be no coincidence that the Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro has now asked his entire cabinet to resign amid this chaos as he struggles to maintain control.
One looter told Sky News: "I have always been an honest man - and still now, I feel honest. We were driven to this. What can we do?"
The national guard can occasionally be seen parked outside certain large outlets - but it's mostly down to individual shops to take the law into their own hands.
We met a band of heavily armed men who agreed to talk to us outside one supermarket in the city. "This is Maracaibo," one heavily tattooed man told us. "We have to do this." Another said: "It's them or us. Anyone in our position would do the same."
It was the long week of a total electricity blackout which finally tipped Maracaibo over into anarchy - a string of days and nights with zero power countrywide.
In broad daylight thousands of people marched into shops in Maracaibo and took what they wanted. The tenuous hold on order in the city was, once and for all, blown apart.
The city's civilians have struggled under a crumbling infrastructure which has seen many areas without running water for years as well as intermittent power cuts and internet interruptions. Now they had had enough.
And this was different. Every shop owner and hotel manager we spoke to told us how they thought the authorities would step in and help - but no one came.
Many spoke about how the police and collectivos (armed thugs) joined in with the looting. "I stole and then the police stole from me," one looter told Sky News.
The devastation was extensive at the Hotel Brisas del Norte. Five floors of the hotel were trashed.
Every door was ripped off its hinges. Every ceiling was hacked into and the copper wiring ripped out. Every appliance was taken away; every fitting levered off, including the marble topping on the reception desk.
"It was like terrorism," said Margelis Romero, the hotel administrator. "They came in with their faces covered and carrying machetes and guns and stayed here for several days destroying everything."
A look inside the Pepsi factory close by shows the warehouse empty but for plastic bags and wrapping covering the floor.
Our movement disturbs three looters still rifling through the debris to see if they can plunder anything else. They run off into the distance. One of them appears to be carrying a stick.
Maracaibo has settled back into an uneasy calm but the city has tasted lawlessness. No one is quite sure what it will take to tip it once again. What they are sure about is: it will happen again if the situation doesn't improve for its citizens.

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Venezuela: After days of darkness, mob's orgy of violence has left city in shock

22 March

There's still a palpable air of shock in Maracaibo.

Venezuela's second city is still clearing up after an orgy of violence and wanton destruction that ripped through more than five hundred shops and businesses during the nationwide power cuts recently.
At the Hotel Brisas del Norte, they reckon more than 450 doors in the five-storey building were ripped off.
Even the frames were chiselled out. The level of devastation takes your breath away. All the obvious furniture disappeared - the beds, the chairs, the cosy sofas that filled the lounge room; the televisions in the bedrooms.
And then the looters took it to a whole different level.
The carpets have all been ripped up; cables in walls and ceilings have been yanked out. The water in the swimming pool has even been stolen. The marble desk-top on the reception has gone.
In one case I saw, they'd punched a hole in the wall and taken out an entire window - and when they found they couldn't take out the windows, they smashed them instead.
They took down the hotel CCTV; they emptied the offices of all computers. They emptied the hotel of everything.
It's as if a human hoover has been through there, sucking up everything in its path, sweeping through every room and staircase, taking the mirrors out of the elevators and then using machetes to hack through the ceilings and walls to get to what lies underneath - and steal that too.
The two staff who took us round were aghast at the images.
"This wasn't hunger. This was vandalism. It's like terrorism. They came in with guns and machetes and masks and just took everything. We were like a family here," said Margolis Romero, the hotel administrator.
"Many of the staff lived on the premises and we were the heart of this community," he added.
Maracaibo is used to power cuts. They've been enduring them for years. But this was nationwide and total. The lights never came back on, not for a long week and in some areas longer than that.
On day five of no light, no internet and limited mobile phone service, the mob descended on the hotel and camped there, stripping it of its innards over a day and a half.
The sacking looks frenzied. And this scene is replicated in hundreds of other businesses. In one electronics shop, after stripping it of computers, laptops and phones, the looters set fire to it, reducing it to ashes.
This is where Nicolas Maduro and his regime lost the heart of the Venezuelan people. This is where the poor stood up and wrought a quite terrible revenge for a few days and took what they believe is rightfully theirs.
People picked up guns and weapons and for a while lawlessness prevailed.
In one snippet of mobile phone footage given to us, you can see two police officers desperately trying to stop looters who are running across the road, driving up and down honking horns. There's the sound of gunfire.
We tracked down a number of looters all very frightened about talking publicly.
But one 47-year-old man told us he'd run into a supermarket, along with "all of my neighbours", and hunted for food. "I couldn't see the food because it was just dark so I just grabbed what I could - a lot of shampoo bottles."
He said he went into a shoe shop and gathered up about 10-15 pairs of shoes but was stopped by a police officer who threatened to kill him if he didn't drop the shoes.
I asked him if the policeman was trying to recover the stolen items. "No!" he replied with a smile. "I stole and he stole from me."
But this was a man who described himself as honest, who said he'd never stolen anything in his life, who still maintains he is honest.
"This is what Maduro has made us do," he said ruefully. "This is what Maduro has turned us into."
The sacking of Maracaibo may well be a seminal moment when the historians look back and realise this was when the criticism and frustration over the Venezuelan leader finally boiled over.
The poor have in the past formed the backbone of his power base. But what happened in Maracaibo has shown the poor have now got a taste for vicious violence and have had enough of misery and deprivation.
The embattled president's decision to ask his entire cabinet to resign seems to suggest he's searching for supporters as he struggles to maintain control.
Right now there's a sort of calm in Maracaibo. Shop owners have positioned vigilantes outside their stores and on the roofs. One Venezuelan told me: "They're calling what happened the 'appetiser'. Everyone thinks it will happen again."

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Birmingham mosque attacks: Two men arrested after windows were smashed

22 March

Police have arrested two men after five mosques had their windows smashed in Birmingham on Thursday.

West Midlands Police said a 34-year-old man from Perry Barr handed himself in at a Birmingham police station and was arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated criminal damage.
A 38-year-old man from the Yardley area of the city was also arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated criminal damage on Friday afternoon after he was detained by members of the community.
Both remain in custody as police continue their investigation, which is being supported by the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit.
Assistant Chief Constable Matt Ward said: "This is a significant step forward in our enquiries however the investigation continues into the motive for the incidents.
"We are working extremely closely with mosques and local communities around the West Midlands and this will continue.
"It remains incredibly important that we unite together against those who seek to create discord, uncertainty and fear."
The mosques had their windows smashed in the early hours of Thursday between 1.25am and 3.15am.
The mosques are:
:: Witton Islamic Centre, Witton Road, Aston
:: Masjid Madrassa Faizal Islam, The Broadway, Perry Barr
:: Al Habib Trust, Birchfield Road, Aston
:: Jamia Mosque, Albert Road, Aston
:: Ghousia Mosque, Slade Road, Erdington
Police say they have stepped up patrols at key locations to reassure communities and security advice is being provided to religious establishments across the West Midlands.
:: Anyone with information should contact police via Live Chat on west-midlands.police.uk between 8am and midnight or by calling 101.

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