Theresa May has urged MPs to give her “the clearest possible mandate” to go back to Brussels and reopen Brexit negotiations with the aim of replacing the controversial backstop.
Opening a crucial day of debate in the House of Commons, Mrs May said MPs had made clear what they did not want when they rejected her Withdrawal Agreement by a 230-vote margin earlier this month, but now it was time for them to tell Brussels what they do want.
She called for them to send an “emphatic message” to the EU by backing an amendment tabled by Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady which would require her to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
And she told them: “If you want Brexit, you have to vote for Brexit.”
Despite what she acknowledged was a “limited appetite” in Europe for reopening talks, she insisted: “I believe with a mandate from this House… I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the EU.”
The amendment from Sir Graham – the chair of the influential Tory backbench 1922 Committee – was one of seven selected by Commons Speaker John Bercow for consideration and possible votes on Tuesday evening.
Also up for debate is a cross-party proposal from Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory Nick Boles – backed by the Labour frontbench – which would hand control over the Brexit process to Parliament, potentially delaying departure day from March 29 to the end of the year.
Mr Bercow also selected Jeremy Corbyn’s own amendment – which would allow debate on Labour’s preferred plan or a second referendum – as well as others which would rule out a no-deal Brexit, extend the two-year negotiation under Article 50 or permit a series of “indicative votes” to establish the will of the Commons.
In an attempt to fend off possible rebellion by Tories seeking to avoid a no-deal departure, Mrs May promised that Tuesday’s votes would not be MPs’ final chance to pass judgment on EU withdrawal.
She told the Commons she aims to return to the House “as soon as possible” with a revised deal, which will be subject to a “meaningful vote” of MPs. If defeated, she will table another amendable motion for debate the following day.
If no new deal is reached by February 13, the PM will make a statement to Parliament that day and table an amendable motion for debate the following day.
Mrs May acknowledged that the Commons defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement she agreed with EU leaders last November had been “decisive”. And she told MPs: “I listened.”
It was in the interests of the whole House to back the Brady amendment, which would resolve the main obstacle to Britain securing a smooth and orderly exit from the EU, she said.
Mrs May said it was time for Parliament to “speak as one”.
“I will never stop battling for Britain, but the odds of success become much longer if this House ties one hand behind my back,” she said.
“I call on this House to give me the mandate I need to deliver a deal this House can support.”
“Do that and I can work to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. Do that and I can fight for a backstop that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland in a way this House can support. Do that and we can leave the EU with a deal that honours the result of the referendum.”
“So the time has come for words to be matched by deeds. If you want to tell Brussels what this House will accept, you have to vote for it. If you want to leave with a deal, you have to vote for it. If you want Brexit, you have to vote for Brexit.”
She warned those considering voting for the “cacophony” of rival amendments to rule out no-deal: “Unless we are to end up with no Brexit at all, the only way to avoid no-deal is to agree a deal.”
“That is why I want to go back to Brussels with the clearest possible mandate to secure a deal that this House can support. That means sending the clearest possible message not about what this House does not want but what we do want.”
Mrs May’s hopes of securing a majority for the Brady amendment were boosted when former foreign secretary and Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson said he would “gladly” vote for it, if it meant legally binding changes to the backstop.
But the chances of the Commons derailing her plans were also heightened when Labour confirmed it will back the Cooper-Boles plan.
Mrs May is expected to have phone discussions with key EU leaders over the course of the day, with votes taking place in the early evening.
Brussels has been adamant that it will not reopen the Agreement, and Ireland’s European affairs minister, Helen McEntee, cautioned: “There can be no change to the backstop. It was negotiated over 18 months with the UK and by the UK. A bit of realism is needed at this stage.”
But Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “There is a very clear message from the EU’s leaders that they want the UK to leave with a deal and that they understand this is in the best interests of the EU as well as the UK.”
Tory MPs were told at a meeting with Mrs May on Monday evening that they would be whipped to support the Brady amendment.
But it was far from clear whether this instruction would be followed by enough of the 118 Conservatives who rebelled against Mrs May’s deal on January 15.
Remain-backing Tories may rally behind the Cooper-Boles amendment, while other proposals may gain cross-party support, including a plan by Conservative Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
Meanwhile, a compromise drafted by Conservative MPs from both the Remain and Leave sides of the party won the crucial backing of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Drawn up in meetings co-ordinated by housing minister Kit Malthouse, the compromise recasts the backstop as a “free trade agreement-lite”, with a commitment on all sides there should be no hard border and an extended transition period to December 2021.
DUP leader Arlene Foster – whose 10 MPs prop up the minority Conservative administration in the Commons – said it provided a “feasible” alternative to the backstop.
“If the Prime Minister is seeking to find a united front, both between elements in her own party and the DUP, in the negotiations which she will enter with the European Union, then this is a proposition which she should not turn her back on,” said Mrs Foster.