In a series of private meetings with backbenchers, the Prime Minister suggested MPs could get a vote before the UK is allowed to enter the so-called Northern Ireland “backstop” which could keep the country tied into a customs union with the EU. Ministers were understood to be planning an amendment to the motion for next week’s crunch Commons vote on the deal to introduce the extra “parliamentary lock” on entering the backstop. Her offer was put forward on Tuesday following intensifying fears that her deal will be rejected by a margin of more than 100 MPs at Westminster on Tuesday.
And the Tory civil war over the deal deepened when senior Eurosceptics accused Downing Street of plotting an ultra-soft Brexit that will leave the UK trapped in both the EU single market and customs union forever.
One leading Eurosceptic rebel said: “An attempt to effectively cancel Brexit and keep us in the EU is underway.”
On Tuesday Mrs May and her allies were stepping up their attempt to try to persuade Tory MPs to back her deal.
Chief Whip Julian Smith addressed Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group of Brexit enthusiasts on Tuesday night to try to put the Government’s case.
The Prime Minister was meeting dozens of MPs in small groups in her Commons office to try to implore them not to block her deal in the so-called “meaningful vote” on her deal next Tuesday.
Several MPs who attended the meetings said the possible “parliamentary lock” to next Tuesday’s motion had been discussed in an attempt to give extra assurance that about the backstop, an insurance policy designed to prevent a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in the event of a delay on agreeing the UK’s future trade relationship with the UK.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “She’s meeting colleagues and talking to them at this time.”
Theresa May is trying to persuade Tory MPs to back her deal
But the “parliamentary lock” was failing to convince hard-line Euro-sceptics on Tuesday night. One senior MP said: “It’s silly and few will fall for it.”
Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen said: “This is just kicking the can down the road. The whole withdrawal agreement is a trap designed to keep us in the EU, not get us out. Why should we pay a £40billion divorce bill for this?”
Other Eurosceptic Tories claimed the Government had colluded with pro-Brussels rebels on an amendment passed on Tuesday designed to strengthen Parliament’s hand on Brexit policy if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected next week.
One senior Tory MP warned: “This is about making it looked like the Prime Minister is being forced into accepting an eventual outcome that adds up to not really leaving the EU.
“That has been the plan by some in the Government all along.”
In the Commons, the Prime Minister acknowledged there were widespread concerns about the backstop but insisted her deal
“I believe that the deal we have negotiated is a good deal,” she told MP during Prime Minister’s Questions.
“I recognise that concerns have been raised, particularly around the backstop.
Former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said Theresa May’s deal was “a risk too far”
“I am continuing to listen to colleagues on that, and I am considering the way forward.”
A string of Tory backbenchers threatened to vote against Mrs May’s deal on Tuesday during the second day of a five-day Commons debate ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said Theresa May’s deal was “a risk too far”.
He said: “If we are to surrender our vote, our voice and our veto then we need to have a deal that’s worth all the risks of not knowing how it’s going to work out, and we do not have that at the moment.
“This so-called deal is a gamble – we put all our cards and all our money on the table and then wait for another two years for the EU to set the rules of the game and that is a risk too far.”
Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson said Mrs May’s deal had shattered his party’s alliance with the Tories to prop up her minority government.
Former Tory Cabinet minister Justine Greening
This so-called deal is a gamble
“Promises were made, promises in December when we sat with the Prime Minister in Downing Street where she said ‘I will make sure Northern Ireland has the final say on this because the assembly will be the final arbiter as to whether or not these arrangements are put in place’.
“They were taken out of the agreement, there has been bad faith. The agreement and the understanding we had has been broken,” he said.
Pro-Brussels MPs from across the Commons used the debate to intensify their demands for a fresh EU referendum.
Former Tory Cabinet minister Justine Greening said: “A referendum is one of the ways that we could enable millions of Leave voters who don’t think that this Government is delivering on the verdict of that referendum a chance to have their say properly in a way that they don’t think is happening in this Parliament and we now have some clear cut practical choices and we should put those on the table.”
Tory backbencher Sarah Wollaston said: “It seems to me that even the dogs in the street know that the Prime Minister’s deal is not going to pass this House next week, that’s the truth of it.
“What we should do now is be thinking about plan B and be honest about that, to my mind plan B must not involve no-deal, no responsible Government could inflict no-deal in 114 days on the United Kingdom, we are absolutely not prepared for that.
“The alternative is to look at going back to the British people.”
Speaking for the Government in the debate, Home Secretary Sajid Javid admitted Mrs May’s deal was imperfect.
“No-one can pretend that this deal is perfect in every sense. There inevitably will be some compromises with this deal with a number of objectives,” he told MPs.
He added: “It is my belief that the deal on the table is the best option available in ensuring a smooth exit from the European Union.
“It will ensure that we leave the EU, as planned, on 29 March next year, that we take back control of our borders, that we end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK and that we stop sending vast sums of money to Brussels.”
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox warned on Tuesday that Remainer MPs were attempting to “steal” Brexit through parliamentary amendments seeking to let the Commons direct the Government’s handling of the final phases of the exit process.
“I think that there is a real danger that the House of Commons, which has a natural Remain majority, may attempt to steal Brexit from the British people, which I think would be a democratic affront,” he told a Committee of MPs.
Asked how EU withdrawal could be halted, Dr Fox said: “It would entirely be possible for amendments to a number of pieces of legislation, we believe, to achieve that effect.
“And, it’s quite right, we cannot be bound by a motion in the Commons, but we would be bound by legislation.”
On Tuesday night Downing Street aides did not deny a report that three Cabinet ministers have urged Mrs May to cancel next Tuesday’s vote because of the scale of opposition against her.
A Number 10 spokesman said: “There’s a binary choice here and people have got to focus their minds on it. Pulling the vote would not make any difference.”
The spokesman insisted the vote “will go ahead” next Tuesday.