May fight to save her Brexit plan amid warnings of another crushing defeat

Theresa May is battling to save her Brexit strategy amid warnings she is heading for another crushing defeat in Tuesday’s crunch Commons vote.

Tory Brexiteers said rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement was “inevitable” unless the Prime Minister was able to secure significant changes to the Northern Ireland backstop.

But with little sign of a breakthrough from “technical” talks between officials in taking place in Brussels over the weekend, some senior Conservatives said she should postpone the “meaningful vote” rather than risk another damaging reverse.

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Highest votes for Leave in the EU referendum (PA Graphics)

Instead she was being urged to table a “conditional” motion setting out the terms for dealing with the backstop issue which Parliament would be prepared to accept.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, told The Times that it “would not be a foolish way to proceed”.

He added: “I think a meaningful vote with an addendum saying this House will support a deal if such and such is done might be a way of uniting the party or limiting the scale of the defeat.”

Former chief whip Andrew Mitchell told the paper: “Anything that avoids what looks like a massive defeat on Tuesday is worth considering.”

Meanwhile Public Health minister Steve Brine has warned that he would resign unless Tory MPs are given a free vote in a vote expected later in the week on whether Britain should leave the EU without a deal.

“I think a free vote would be very smart,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour.

“I would find it very difficult, actually impossible to be part of a policy that was pursuing actively no-deal.”

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Environment Secretary Michael Gove has encouraged MPs to back May’s deal (Jeff Overs/BBC)

Environment Secretary Michael Gove – one of the leaders of the official Leave campaign in the referendum – became the latest Cabinet minister to urge MPs to vote for Mrs May’s deal.

In an article for the Daily Mail, he said: “I hope that everyone who believes in our democracy – in the importance of delivering Brexit, but also in the critical need to unite our country – will come behind the Prime Minister’s deal this week.”

The calls for a postponement came after the the former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan warned Mrs May’s position would become untenable if Parliament “dismantled” her Brexit policy in a series of votes during the course of the week.

Nevertheless, delaying the meaningful would be another humiliation for the Prime Minister after senior ministers spent the weekend insisting it would go ahead as planned.

Mrs May has already postponed it once from December only to see it resoundingly defeated the following month by a majority of 230.

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Biggest government defeats in House of Commons (PA Graphics)

With less than three weeks to Brexit day on March 29 – when Britain is due to leave the EU – any delay would raise renewed questions as to whether there was any way she could get her deal through the Commons.

Mrs May has said if she loses the vote on Tuesday, there will be further votes on Wednesday on whether the UK should leave with no-deal and on Thursday on whether they should seek an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process.

Many at Westminster believe that in that event MPs would vote to delay Britain’s departure – to the fury of Brexiteers.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned at the weekend that they risked losing Brexit altogether unless they fell in line and backed the deal.

He said there was now “wind in the sails” of the opponents of Brexit and that it would be “devastating” for the Conservatives if they failed to deliver on their commitment to take Britain out of the EU.

Meanwhile shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer indicated Labour would not put down an amendment calling for a second referendum on Tuesday.

He said there would be “plenty of opportunities” to do so in the coming weeks and that Tuesday should be about defeating Mrs May’s deal.