The Prime Minister is considering a range of measures designed to make the Irish ‘backstop’ more palatable to her mutinous backbenchers.
Proposals include placing a parliamentary ‘lock’ on the backstop, which would give MPs the final say over whether to enter an arrangement which critics fear could keep the UK trapped in the customs union indefinitely.
At least three ministers have appealed directly to Prime Minister Theresa May in an attempt to postpone next week’s Brexit deal vote in Parliament
Downing Street is also considering a new law that would guarantee there could be no divergence of rules between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK during any backstop period.
The measures could be included in a Government amendment to Tuesday’s Commons vote on Mrs May’s deal.
But some senior Tories believe she is running out of time to persuade Eurosceptic Tories and Democratic Unionists ahead of the vote.
The development came as:
- Ministers published the Attorney General’s full legal advice on Mrs May’s deal after losing a dramatic Commons vote on Tuesday in which the Government was found to be in ‘contempt of Parliament’;
- Mrs May’s partners in the DUP accused her of ‘bad faith’ and vowed to vote against the deal after the legal advice warned there would need to be new checks on some goods travelling from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK;
- Brexiteers claimed the DUP’s continued support for the Government was now conditional on the Brexit deal being defeated;
- Downing Street insisted Mrs May would not seek to delay the UK’s departure from the EU even if her deal is defeated next week, saying: ‘She has been very clear we are not extending Article 50’;
- International Trade Secretary Liam Fox warned MPs that Remainers in Parliament ‘may try to steal Brexit from the British people’;
- Chancellor Philip Hammond warned against leaving without a deal, saying it would take at least two years to prepare the port of Dover.
At least three Cabinet ministers are said to have directly urged the Prime Minister to agree a short postponement.
One said: ‘There are ways this can be fixed and people have started looking at them.
The ministers are attempting to sweeten the deal before presenting it to MPs, with the Tory chief whip also concerned at potentially disastrous defeat
‘We need to be creative and we need to get the DUP back on board. It can be done, but it can’t be done before next Tuesday. We need to pull the vote or we risk losing on a scale that makes the whole thing impossible to salvage.’
Another senior Tory said: ‘Marching people into the valley of death next Tuesday is a mistake. There will be a monumental effort to change people’s minds this weekend.
‘But if that does not work then it’s not a bad idea to allow a little more time for tempers to cool if we want to influence people.’
Tory chief whip Julian Smith is also said to be concerned about the idea of pressing ahead with a vote if it seems certain the Government will be heavily defeated.
But a senior Tory source indicated Mrs May was not currently minded to delay, adding: ‘Delaying things might even make it worse.’
Mrs May has spent much of the last few days lobbying small groups of Tory MPs to back her deal.
More than 100 MPs have voiced doubts about it, mostly focused on the backstop.
The plan is designed to ensure there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland if trade talks stall.
Discussing the upcoming crunch vote, a senior Tory said: ‘There will be a monumental effort to change people’s minds this weekend’
But it would leave the whole UK in the customs union. And the Government’s legal advice is that there would be no unilateral way out.
One idea being considered is to give MPs a vote on whether to allow the process to go ahead if talks fail to produce a workable alternative.
John Baron, a Tory Eurosceptic pushing for a unilateral exit mechanism, yesterday said the plan did not go far enough, adding: ‘A parliamentary lock would bind us but would not bind the EU. I could not support it.’
Downing Street refused to say whether the idea would be taken up, but confirmed Mrs May was in ‘listening mode’.
But No 10 ruled out the Prime Minister asking the EU to reopen the Brexit deal when she travels to Brussels next week, warning that could make things ‘worse’.