Theresa May has told Cabinet she is ready to reopen negotiations with the EU on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to secure changes to the controversial backstop plan to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
The Prime Minister said that, following this month’s crushing 230-vote defeat in the Commons, it was clear that only reopening the agreement and changing the backstop will win MPs’ support for her EU withdrawal deal.
In a change to previously announced plans, she will address MPs at the start of debate on a series of proposed amendments to the deal, urging them to back proposals from Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements”.
In an apparent attempt to fend off possible defeat on other amendments which could delay Brexit or rule out a no-deal departure, Mrs May promised that Tuesday’s votes would not be MPs’ final chance to pass judgment on EU withdrawal.
Her hopes of victory 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 the Withdrawal Agreement being reopened and legally binding changes being made to the backstop.
But the chances of the Commons derailing her plans were also heightened when Labour confirmed it will back a cross-party amendment to push Brexit day back from March 29 to the end of this year and put Parliament in the driving seat on the way forward.
This proposal, tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Nick Boles, is one of the strongest-backed of a bevy of rival amendments tabled for debate. Only those selected by Speaker John Bercow will go forward to a vote.
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.
Speaking to Cabinet, she said she aims to return to the Commons “as soon as possible” with a revised deal, which will be subject to a “meaningful vote” of MPs. If it is 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.
Her announcement brought the prospect of the cancellation of Parliament’s half-term recess a step closer, as the Commons is currently due to rise for its 10-day break on February 14.
Brussels has been adamant that it will not reopen the Agreement, struck by Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and signed off by leaders of the remaining 27 EU states last November.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the EU was waiting to see what happened in Parliament.
“This is not a Brussels day, this is a London day. We have the vote tonight and then we will take it from there,” he said.
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.”
Mrs May told Cabinet that a majority for the Brady amendment would send three vital messages to the EU by:
– Making clear that the will of the House of Commons is to leave with a deal;
– Setting out in no uncertain terms that the UK continues to be committed to arrangements which avoid a hard border in Ireland; and
– Creating scope for new discussions with the EU on how best to achieve that.
“The Prime Minister said that in order to win the support of the House of Commons, legal changes to the backstop will be required,” said Mrs May’s spokesman. “That will mean reopening the Withdrawal Agreement.”
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.
The leader of the European Research Group (ERG) of eurosceptic backbenchers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, initially said its members were not prepared to support the Brady plan, though he later appeared to soften his line.
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 coordinated 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.
Mrs May’s spokesman said the PM “welcomes the fact that MPs are working together to come up with solutions”, but declined to pass judgment on the Malthouse compromise.
Remain-backing former minister Nicky Morgan said discussions had been taking place for “some days” between herself, health minister Stephen Hammond and Solicitor General Robert Buckland on one side and Mr Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker from the ERG on the other.
“The Prime Minister has been aware of the discussions. At some point there has to be compromise on all sides in order to get a deal over the line. That is what most of us want to see – a negotiated settlement with the EU,” she said.
PHOTO: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire