The Prime Minister could decide to remove the controversial border clause in the hope MPs vote for it and send a new message to Brussels that it must be axed or changed if Britain is to leave the EU.
Mrs May is being urged to try to renegotiate with the EU from Brexiteers in her own party including former leader Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tory ERG Spartans and the DUP.
A source told ITV News Mrs May is ‘seriously considering’ the move – but a ministerial source added: ‘We’re still chasing unicorns, and eating up time’.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom today revealed there are no plans yet to hold the vote next week when detailing Commons business, but cranking up pressure on the PM she said: ‘It is absolutely vital that we bring in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to give this House the opportunity to make progress on delivering on the will of the people’.
The EU insists Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened and in January ignored MPs when they voted for the so-called Brady amendment demanding the planned Irish backstop to be replaced by ‘alternative arrangements’.
Prime Minster Theresa May is followed from St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday as rumours swirled about Irish backstop changes yet again
Responding to suggestions Theresa May’s official spokesman insisted the EU will not budge.
He said: ‘In order to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement – which is what’s necessary for us to leave the EU – then obviously the Government would have to secure the whole of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.’
What is the Irish border backstop and why do Tory MPs hate it?
The so-called Irish border backstop is one of the most controversial parts of the PM’s Brexit deal. This is what it means:
What is the backstop?
The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.
The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition if that deal is not in place.
If effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.
This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK and there can be no new trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it?
Because Britain demanded to leave the EU customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees people and goods circulating inside met EU rules.
This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains current rules, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.
But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between transition and final deal.
Why do critics hate it?
Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop.
Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree people and goods can freely cross the border.
Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.
What concessions did Britain get in negotiating it?
During the negotiations, Britain persuaded Brussels the backstop should apply to the whole UK and not just Northern Ireland. Importantly, this prevents a customs border down the Irish Sea – even if some goods still need to be checked.
The Government said this means Britain gets many of the benefits of EU membership after transition without all of the commitments – meaning Brussels will be eager to end the backstop.
It also got promises the EU will act in ‘good faith’ during the future trade talks and use its ‘best endeavours’ to finalise a deal – promises it says can be enforced in court.
What did the legal advice say about it?
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said even with the EU promises, if a trade deal cannot be reached the backstop could last forever.
This would leave Britain stuck in a Brexit limbo, living under EU rules it had no say in writing and no way to unilaterally end it.
The spokesman added: ‘It was set out at the most recent European Council that the EU’s established position was that they wouldn’t reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.’
Reports had suggested the Bill could be moved next week and the Government has shown in recent months it is prepared to change the timetable of the Commons at short notice if required.
Mrs Leadsom later confirmed a debate would be held ‘in due course’ to consider senior Tory Sir Bill Cash’s bid to annul a statutory instrument which changed the Brexit date from April 12 to October 31.
On Friday the Prime Minister accused Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of dragging his feet on cross-party Brexit talks, with an agreement looking unlikely.
Unless the PM can pass her deal Britain is heading for a second referendum or a general election, with No Deal already ruled out by remainer MPs who passed legislation to block it.
Mrs May told the Cabinet that the cross-party talks with Labour had become ‘difficult’ when ministers tried to force the pace in order to get a deal done in time to avoid next month’s European parliament elections.
It came amid signs that the PM could try to break the deadlock by bringing forward legislation to enact her Brexit deal as early as next week.
Ministers discussed the ‘growing possibility’ that parliament could vote to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit if the Government cannot pass a deal. In Cabinet, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom urged Mrs May to order a fresh vote within days.
The move, supported by other Brexiteer ministers, would see the full Withdrawal Agreement Bill – allowing the UK to leave the EU – debated in the Commons next week.
The PM’s official spokesman confirmed that sticking points included Labour’s demand for a permanent customs union and Mr Corbyn’s reluctance to fast-track the process in order to avoid the European elections on May 23.
In Cabinet, Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom urged Mrs May to order a fresh vote on Brexit within days.
The high-stakes move, which won support from several other Brexiteer ministers, would see the full Withdrawal Agreement Bill – which allows the UK to leave the EU debated in the Commons next week.
Under her plan, the Bill would be published within days ahead of two days of debate early next week. Home Secretary Sajid Javid is also understood to have called for legislation to be brought forward.
Ministers have been warned they will have to cancel planned foreign engagements next week if the move goes ahead as they will be needed for votes in the Commons.
The Mail understands Mrs Leadsom mounted a lobbying operation of her Cabinet colleagues over the Easter break urging them to back the plan.
It would avoid the need for a fresh ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal and – if it passed – would ensure the UK left the EU before the end of June.
However, chief whip Julian Smith is thought to have warned that the votes for the deal are ‘not there yet’.
A senior Tory source last night said the government would need an assurance from Labour that the Bill would not be rejected outright at the first hurdle.
Mrs Leadsom wants to amend the Bill to include a legal pledge to secure ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Northern Ireland backstop by the end of next year.
This would appeal to hard line Eurosceptic Tories who have refused to back the deal. But education secretary Damian Hinds dismissed the idea as ‘a mirage’.
Any move to bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill would be fraught with danger. If the Bill was defeated in the Commons, Mrs May could only bring it back by starting a new session of Parliament, which would require a new Queen’s Speech.
This is also the danger of amendments Mrs Leadsom has told friends: ‘If the Withdrawal Agreement is going to be a dogs’ dinner, then at least we need to look like we have fought tooth and nail to make it work.’ Mrs May faced criticism over the decision to talk to Labour at yesterday’s cabinet meeting, which was the first since she agreed to extend Article 50 until October 31.