Hopes of compromise on the controversial Brexit backstop seem no nearer on the eve of a crucial set of votes in the Commons, with one senior Brussels official blasting the idea of concessions as “stupid”.
Leading Conservative Brexiteers indicated they may not support “alternative arrangements” to keep the Irish border open, while the DUP – which props up Theresa May’s minority Government – called on the Prime Minister to “face down the stubbornness of Dublin and Brussels”.
Meanwhile, MPs heard warnings of the danger a no-deal Brexit would pose to the safety of the UK and to the security of its food supplies.
In a joint letter, leading retailers including Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose warned that quitting the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement on March 29 would risk driving up food prices and cutting the range and quality of products on supermarket shelves.
Former MI5 chief Baroness Manningham-Buller warned that a no-deal Brexit should be “avoided at all costs”.
Declaring herself “queasy” at the enthusiasm of Russian President Vladimir Putin for Brexit, Lady Manningham-Buller said a range of security threats – from terrorism to Russian interference – were best dealt with “in a European context”.
“If we leave without a deal we are going to be less safe,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.
MPs will vote on Tuesday on a range of amendments to Mrs May’s Brexit plans, including some which would block a no-deal departure and others which seek to salvage the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement by changing the terms of the backstop to keep the Irish border open.
The amendments are not legally binding on the PM, but majority support for any would place immense political pressure on Mrs May as she seeks a way ahead after the crushing defeat of her plan by 230 votes earlier this month.
Downing Street said the PM remains committed to quitting the EU on March 29 and will take her plan back to the Commons for a second “meaningful vote” as soon as possible after Tuesday’s debate, whether or not she secures more concessions from Brussels.
“The Prime Minister is absolutely committed to leaving the EU with a deal, but clearly if we are to obtain parliamentary support for that deal some changes are going to have to be made,” the PM’s spokesman said.
Mrs May spent Monday meeting Conservative MPs and MEPs, as backbenchers pressed for changes to the backstop.
Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady said he hoped to secure Government backing for his amendment which demands the replacement of the backstop with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.
He said the proposal would give “enormous firepower” to the PM when she returns to Brussels, by setting out clearly what the UK Parliament is ready to back.
Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson insisted he had heard from “senior sources” that the PM was planning to renegotiate the backstop and win a “freedom clause”.
But there were question marks over whether the Brady amendment would win the support of Tory Eurosceptic rebels in the European Research Group.
Senior Brexiteer Sir Bernard Jenkin said he did not intend to back it, telling ITV News: “It’s very vague and it’s deliberately vague because it’s meant to mean different things to different people.”
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith was reported to have called on Mrs May to table her own amendment, to provide greater “clarity and purpose”.
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson said Mrs May should “exploit the cracks which are emerging in the illogical position of the EU and the Irish”.
Mr Wilson said “chaos” in thinking about the backstop had been exposed by recent suggestions from Irish premier Leo Varadkar that troops may have to be sent to the border in a no-deal scenario.
Insisting the UK must hold to the date of March 29 to maintain pressure on the EU and Ireland, Mr Wilson said: “Now is the time for the Government to be tough and to face down the stubbornness of Dublin and Brussels.”
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels that the Withdrawal Agreement was “endorsed by leaders and is not open for renegotiation”.
Commission vice-president Jyrki Kateinen said it would be “a stupid thing” for the EU to make concessions putting the remaining 27 members at a disadvantage simply to secure a deal.
Mr Kateinen said there was “no reason to give any concessions” to the UK and there was “not much room for manoeuvre” on the backstop.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand said it was “quite a challenge” to see how a majority in support of a deal could be constructed in Westminster, warning there was a high risk of the UK crashing out by accident.
Ms Weyand told a Brussels conference that negotiation on the Withdrawal Agreement was “finished”.
Dismissing calls for changes to the backstop as “like Groundhog Day”, she insisted the EU27 were unanimous in opposing any time limit.
There was no announcement from Labour over whether it will officially back a cross-party amendment put forward by the party’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Nick Boles aimed at stopping a no-deal exit and delaying the date of Brexit until the end of the year.
Mr Boles told the Today programme the plan has “a great deal of support among ministers and indeed Cabinet ministers” and they were pressing for a free vote.
“This is the last chance for Parliament, this is probably the only opportunity that Parliament is going to have to intervene in this process, to take control.”
PHOTO: Anti-Brexit campaigners wave Union and European Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament, London. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire