By Andrew Woodcock, Gavin Cordon and Harriet Line, Press Association Political Staff
As MPs resume debate on Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, a close lieutenant of the Prime Minister has accused critics of peddling “fantasies” about other possible Brexit deals.
David Lidington warned potential rebels that the EU will not renegotiate a “magical alternative” if they vote down Mrs May’s plan in the crucial vote next Tuesday – leaving only the options of no deal or no Brexit.
Meanwhile, Labour confirmed that it will table an immediate motion of no confidence in the Government if the PM’s deal falls, in the hope of triggering a general election.
And opponents of a no-deal Brexit made a bid to stop Mrs May from “running down the clock” to March 29.
Speaker John Bercow agreed to allow a debate on their amendment to force her to come back to the Commons within three days – rather than 28 days under current legislation – to set out her next steps if she loses on Tuesday.
Mrs May is understood to have told Cabinet that she will respond quickly if her proposals are rejected by MPs, raising speculation that a “Plan B” could be outlined as early as the end of next week.
The PM was due to hold a drinks reception for MPs at Number 10 as she continues her desperate efforts to fend off humiliation in a vote which could determine the fate of her administration.
Confirming Labour’s plans to force an early election, shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner said it now seemed to be taken for granted that the Government would be defeated in the most important piece of legislation for 50 years, which it had spent two years negotiating.
“We’re now almost accepting that this will simply be defeated and voted down,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Obviously, the next thing to do immediately after that is for there to be a vote of confidence in the Government.”
Next week’s historic showdown comes after the Prime Minister dramatically pulled a vote before Christmas, admitting she was heading for defeat in the face of opposition from both pro-Leave and pro-Remain Tories.
Ahead of the start of five days of debate on Wednesday, the Government published new proposals designed to assuage concerns about the impact of the proposed “backstop” on Northern Ireland.
The Government pledged to give the currently suspended Northern Ireland Assembly a “strong role” if the contentious border backstop proposal is ever triggered.
If a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise by the end of the transition period in 2020, there would be a legally-binding commitment to “consult” with Stormont before deciding to either enter the backstop or ask for an extension.
But Democratic Unionist Party Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson rejected the proposals as “window dressing”, telling Sky News: “The only deal which could swing the DUP round is if the backstop as it applies to the United Kingdom as a whole, or to Northern Ireland specifically, were removed from this agreement.”
The Prime Minister has said she is still seeking fresh assurances from the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop, intended to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic, in a bid to win over sceptical MPs.
Mr Lidington made a last-minute plea to rebels to accept the deal drawn up over two years of negotiations with Brussels.
“I don’t think that the British public are served by fantasies about magical alternative deals that are somehow going to sort of spring out of a cupboard in Brussels,” said the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mrs May’s de facto deputy.
Governments of the 27 remaining EU states “are very clear, in conversations I have had with them as well as their public statements, they ain’t going to be going back and unpicking this for some brand new brilliant renegotiations”, he said.
“So, the choice that people have is this deal, or it is no deal, or it is, as some MPs advocate, to reverse the 2016 referendum entirely.”
But there was little sign of opposition to Mrs May’s deal softening, with Leave-backing former minister Andrew Mitchell confirming he would not vote for the “humiliating” agreement.
On the other side of the debate, rebel Tories have made clear they are ready to wage a parliamentary guerrilla campaign to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Twenty Conservative MPs joined opposition parties on Tuesday in backing a cross-party amendment to the Finance Bill intended to limit the Government’s powers to make tax changes in the event of no-deal.
Among those inflicting the first Government defeat on a Finance Bill since 1978 were former ministers Ken Clarke, Sir Michael Fallon, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Sir Oliver Letwin and Sam Gyimah.
Sir Oliver, who supports Mrs May’s deal, said they were ready to table similar amendments to other Brexit legislation to warn they were prepared to put paid to “this disastrous proposal”.
“The majority in this House will sustain itself, and we will not allow a no-deal exit to occur on March 29,” he said.
Downing Street insisted the amendment – tabled by senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan – was no more than an “inconvenience” which would not prevent the Government collecting taxes.
But supporters said the 303-296 vote showed there was now a clear majority of MPs who would oppose a no-deal if Mrs May cannot, as many expect, win the backing of the Commons for her agreement.
Labour said the wording of the Government motion confirmed that MPs were being asked to vote on the exact same deal on offer before Christmas.
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The delay to the meaningful vote has achieved nothing beyond wasting a month.
“If the Government’s deal is defeated then a general election is the best way forward to give a new government a mandate.”
Labour is also coming under pressure over its position as the party’s International Policy Commission meets on Wednesday to discuss Brexit.
Campaigners from the People’s Vote and Labour for a People’s Vote groups said more than 10,000 of their supporters, including more than 5,000 Labour members, had contacted the party’s policy forum to call for it to come out firmly in favour of a second referendum.
Another campaign group, Another Europe Is Possible, said 201 constituency Labour parties were set to debate motions calling it to take a stronger line against Brexit by the end of this month.