May seeks breakthrough on Northern Ireland backstop as meaningful vote delayed

Theresa May is to hold further meetings with EU leaders after admitting she will not get a Brexit deal in time for MPs to hold a “meaningful vote” this week.

The Prime Minister, attending an EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt, has said she will put her deal to Parliament by March 12 at the latest – just 17 days before Britain is due to leave the EU.

The latest delay was greeted with anger by opposition parties who accused her of another attempt to “run down the clock” to force MPs to back her Withdrawal Agreement.

And there was dismay among businesses over the continuing uncertainty over what will happen after March 29 when Britain is supposed to leave the EU.

Mrs May now faces the prospect of another potentially damaging Commons revolt on Wednesday when MPs are expected to mount a fresh attempt to block a no-deal break.

In the meantime, she is due to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte in the sidelines of the summit on Monday as she continues to seek a resolution to the impasse over the Northern Ireland backstop.

It follows talks on Sunday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh with European Council president Donald Tusk.

EU-League of Arab States Summit
Prime Minister Theresa May with leaders of the EU-League of Arab States Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Tusk was said to have emphasised the need for “clarity” that any proposed solution would command a majority in the Commons before he was prepared to put it to the remaining EU27 leaders, according to one EU source.

Mrs May’s acknowledgement that she cannot get a deal to put to MPs this week, means there will now be a further series of votes in the Commons on an amendable Government motion on Wednesday.

A cross-party group of MPs seeking to block a no-deal break immediately confirmed they would be tabling an amendment giving the House the power to demand a delay to Brexit if an agreement is not in place by March 13.

Over the weekend three pro-EU Cabinet ministers – Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark – signalled they could be prepared to vote for it if there was no breakthrough in the negotiations.

There was speculation that up to 100 Tory MPs – including as many as 20 ministers – could be prepared to join them as patience among MPs opposed to no-deal is stretched to breaking point.

Even if PM now won’t do “meaningful vote” on a Deal, she still promised to lay an amendable motion this week. We will push cross party amendment this week paving way for our Bill to safeguard against No Deal. PM remarks make it even more vital Commons votes for Bill #NotoNoDealpic.twitter.com/jCcm3kh8T9

— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) February 24, 2019

Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood told The Times: “The scale of the damage no-deal would do to our economy, security and reputation and the growing threat that it might happen by default overshadows any leverage it may have had in our negotiations with the EU.

“We must put country first and rule out no-deal.”

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who drew up the amendment with Conservative former minister Sir Oliver Letwin, said it would now become the “real meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal.

“The Prime Minister isn’t acting responsibly in the national interest, but MPs from all sides need to do so,” she said.

Mrs May, however, said a delay to Brexit would not resolve the deadlock over the backstop, with the Government seeking legally binding assurance it will not mean Britain is tied indefinitely to EU customs arrangements.

“Now, often people talk about the extension of Article 50 as if that will actually solve the issue. Of course it won’t. It defers the point of decision,” she said.

“There will always come a point where we have to decide whether we accept the deal that’s been negotiated or not. And that will be a decision for every member of Parliament across the House.”