May’s deal in peril after Brexiteers call on MPs to vote it down

Theresa May’s hopes of securing House of Commons approval for her Brexit deal suffered a shattering blow as leading Tory and DUP Eurosceptics said they would not recommend MPs to vote for it.

The so-called Star Chamber of lawyers convened by the Leave-backing European Research Group found that agreements reached by the Prime Minister in 11th-hour talks in Strasbourg do not deliver the legally-binding changes the Commons has demanded.

Their judgment came after Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told MPs that the changes “reduce the risk” that the UK could be trapped indefinitely in the backstop, but do not remove it altogether.

In a significant setback to Mrs May’s effort to overturn the 230-vote majority by which her deal was rejected in January, Mr Cox said that “the legal risk remains unchanged” of the UK being unable to leave the backstop without EU agreement.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Cox had confirmed that “no significant changes” had been secured in two months of negotiations and the Government’s strategy was “in tatters”.

Prime Minister Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal has been dealt a heavy blow (Steve Parsons/PA)

Mr Cox’s advice was issued the morning after Mrs May’s dash to Strasbourg to finalise a deal with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker which she said would reassure MPs that the backstop arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit will not become permanent.

The pair agreed a “joint instrument” setting out the legally-binding nature of their promises to seek alternative arrangements to avoid the need for a backstop, as well as a “supplement” to November’s Political Declaration making clear that they will seek swiftly to seal a deal on their new trade and security relationship.

Alongside these documents was a “unilateral declaration by the UK” which sets out “sovereign action” by which Britain could seek to have the backstop removed if the EU acted in bad faith.

On a day of high drama in Westminster, the Cabinet gave its backing to the package at its weekly meeting chaired by the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street.

Mrs May said passing the vote would allow the country to move on to a brighter future, while the alternative was uncertainty with no guarantee of what happens next.

She concluded the meeting by telling ministerial colleagues: “Today is the day. Let’s get this done.”

In his advice, Mr Cox said that documents agreed in Strasbourg “reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained” in the backstop by EU bad faith or a failure by Brussels to use its “best endeavours” to negotiate a permanent deal on the future relationship.

Attorney General confirms that there have been no significant changes to the Withdrawal Agreement despite the legal documents that were agreed last night.

The Government’s strategy is now in tatters. pic.twitter.com/xBKJPy5WbL

— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) March 12, 2019

But he warned that the question of whether a satisfactory agreement on a future UK/EU relationship can be reached remains “a political judgment”.

And he said “the legal risk remains unchanged” that if no such agreement can be reached due to “intractable differences”, the UK would have “no internationally lawful means” of leaving the backstop without EU agreement.

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Cox later said: “Were such a situation to occur, let me make it clear, the legal risk as I set it out in my letter of November 13 remains unchanged.”

Mr Cox told MPs: “There is no ultimate unilateral right out of this arrangement. The risk of that continues.

“But the question is whether it is a likelihood, politically.”

There were now “material new obligations” on the EU to pursue alternative arrangements and it would be “unconscionable” if the EU refused to “consider or adopt reasonable proposals relating to alternative arrangements”.