Theresa May takes hunt for Brexit breakthrough down to the wire

Theresa May was working down to the wire to find a Brexit breakthrough before Tuesday’s crucial vote by MPs on her Withdrawal Agreement, with speculation mounting of last-minute talks with Jean-Claude Juncker.

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said he understood that the Prime Minister will travel to Strasbourg on Monday evening in a final bid to secure changes that will allow MPs to back her Withdrawal Agreement the following day.

But sources in London said the Tanaiste was “getting ahead of himself” and there were no confirmed plans for Mrs May to fly to the continent.

Neither Downing Street nor the European Commission would confirm plans for a face-to-face meeting between Mrs May and Mr Juncker, who spoke by telephone on Sunday evening and again on Monday.

Time is running out for any new assurances or clarifications to the deal which was resoundingly rejected by a 230-vote majority by MPs in January.

The Government must table its motion for Tuesday’s debate by the end of the day, alongside the publication of any relevant documents – including Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice on the deal.

Downing Street insisted following Monday’s phone call that “talks continue”, despite admitting the process was “deadlocked” after negotiations over the weekend failed to produce agreement.

European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the talks happening now were “between the Government in London and the Parliament in London”, rather than the UK and Brussels.

At Westminster, speculation has centred on the prospect of the Prime Minister watering down her commitment to hold a vote on her Brexit deal following the failure of talks to provide suitable concessions over the Northern Ireland backstop.

But Mrs May’s official spokesman confirmed it remains the plan to stage the second “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal on Tuesday.

Countdown to leaving the EU

The PM’s spokesman cautioned against “speculation” that Mrs May might ask Parliament to vote on a “conditional” motion expressing its readiness to support a form of deal other than the one agreed with Brussels.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a challenge to Mrs May to spell out the state of negotiations, tabling an urgent question in the Commons on the progress made in achieving legally-binding changes to her deal.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said it was “imperative” that the PM answer the question in person, rather than sending a minister in her place.

“Accountability for the complete mess we are in lies with her,” he said.

In a sign of Brussels’ frustration, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “It is now for the House of Commons to take an important set of decisions this week.”

Mr Barnier told AFP as he arrived at a meeting of EU ambassadors: “We talked all weekend and now the discussions, the negotiations, are between the Government in London and the Parliament in London.”

MPs are expected to vote on the deal on Tuesday, with possible further votes on whether to accept a no-deal Brexit or extend Article 50 in order to delay the UK’s departure beyond the current March 29 deadline.

The Prime Minister was warned that her position could be in jeopardy unless she stuck to commitments she made about this week’s votes.

Tory former minister Nick Boles said: “I am sure that the Prime Minister will honour these three commitments.

“If she doesn’t she will forfeit the confidence of the House of Commons.”

And senior Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper said the PM would be guilty of a “straight-up lie” if she failed to go through with votes allowing MPs to delay Brexit.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will honour these three commitments. If she doesn’t she will forfeit the confidence of the House of Commons.

— Nick Boles MP (@NickBoles) March 11, 2019

Mrs May has been told by Brexiteers that rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement is “inevitable” unless there are significant changes to the Northern Ireland backstop.

Some called on the PM to postpone the “meaningful vote” rather than risk another damaging reverse.

They urged her 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, chairman of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, told the Times it “would not be a foolish way to proceed”.

Jacob Rees-Mogg
Jacob Rees-Mogg said a ‘conditional’ motion ‘would not be a foolish way to proceed’ (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

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.”

Ex-cabinet minister Nicky Morgan said Mrs May’s position would become untenable if Parliament “dismantled” her Brexit policy in a series of votes during the course of the week.

But former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “The Prime Minister is there at least until the autumn of this coming year and therefore that means she has got to make the decisions that are relevant.”

Asked if the PM had considered resigning if her deal was defeated on Tuesday, her spokesman said he had not discussed the matter with Mrs May, but added: “I have seen nothing at all to suggest that.”

Tory MP George Freeman said Mrs May should quit after Brexit rather than have a “panicked change of leader now”.

Michael Gove
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has encouraged MPs to back Theresa 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.”