Theresa May is facing a crushing defeat in the Commons tomorrow night after the eleventh-hour lifeline she requested from the European Union was rejected by senior MPs.
Her plea for “legally binding assurances” on the Irish backstop issue was met with a letter that contained warm words but which MPs said fell short of a cast-iron guarantee.
The letter from Brussels grandees Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker declared there was “a legal value” in promises given by the other 27 EU leaders at their December summit that it would “work speedily” towards alternative arrangements and that “if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would only apply temporarily” as a stopgap.
The letter offered no changes to the withdrawal agreement reached between Mrs May and the EU, effectively ruling out a time limit or “escape clause” being added to the backstop.
“As you know, we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement,” Mr Tusk, the European Council president, and Mr Juncker, the European Commission president, wrote.
But the Prime Minister welcomed the letter which she said carried “legal force” and “make absolutely clear that the backstop is not a threat or a trap”.
Mrs May said: “We have achieved this exchange of letters which gives those further clarifications — which gives those further assurances — which I believe do give that further confidence to Members of Parliament about the future relationship we will have with the European Union. And about both sides not wanting to use the backstop.”
But her Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party allies seemed unmoved. DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Evening Standard the letter failed to give a legally binding commitment and he made clear the party was still intending to vote against Mrs May. “As things stand our position remains unchanged,” he said.
The party’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson declared: “As far as we are concerned the deal is dead because it is quite clear that the EU are not willing to grant any of the changes [that the DUP are seeking].”
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, a member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said the backstop — which would tie the UK to EU rules indefinitely in order to avoid a hard border with Ireland — remained a trap. “Without changes to the text of the draft agreement, the United Kingdom can still be trapped in the backstop for decades without any means of escape,” he said. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Standard: “If the DUP are not going to vote for it, then the Government has certainly lost this vote.”
Some experts have predicted Mrs May could suffer the heaviest defeat ever suffered by a government tomorrow evening, with her deal falling short in the Commons by 100 or even 200-plus votes. The last time a government was defeated by more than 100 votes was October 8, 1924, when the minority government of Ramsay MacDonald went down to a defeat of 166.
The setback for Mrs May came as Westminster was mired in political turmoil. Developments included:
The Prime Minister used a speech in Stoke, a Leave-backing area, to urge the country to unite behind her deal. She warned of a “stymie” in Parliament and offered an olive branch to Labour MPs by pledging to maintain workers’ rights and be a “world leader” in environmental standards. “We have a duty to deliver Brexit,” she added.
Cabinet ministers were divided over what Mrs May should do next, with several sources saying the Prime Minister was not sharing her thoughts with colleagues.
A plot by former ministers to empower the Commons Liaison Committee to seize control of Brexit and push Plan Bs, such as a second referendum, collapsed in disarray as the committee’s elected chairwoman said she had not been consulted.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox urged MPs to back the Prime Minister’s deal on the basis of the EU letters, saying: “I hope my colleagues will listen to those and recognise the best way forward is to support the agreement because it delivers on the referendum result and does so in a way that minimises the risks to our economy.”
With just 24 hours until tomorrow night’s key votes, there was no sense either in Cabinet or in Parliament of a consensus on the way forward.
A senior minister told the Standard: “I believe she has to come back again, hopefully with an improved deal around the backstop. There is no other way a deal can get through as Corbyn would never allow his MPs to support another version of Brexit from this Government.” A separate group of Cabinet ministers, believed to include Chancellor Philip Hammond and Mrs May’s de facto deputy David Lidington, thinks Mrs May should try to secure Labour votes by offering to bolt a customs union on to her deal, in line with Labour policy. But the minister said it would likely fail as “Corbyn will reject everything”.
A Brexit-backing Cabinet minister privately scorned attempts by former ministers including Nicholas Boles and Oliver Letwin to empower the Liaison Committee to take charge, saying: “MPs cannot just come up with ideas they have just thought of and expect to get them taken seriously.”
Committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston, an anti-Brexit campaigner, criticised the plotters. “The Boles plan appears to have been developed with just two other MPs and not discussed in advance with the committee,” she tweeted.