Theresa May today attempted to buy off Brexiteers with an 11th-hour offer of a vote in Parliament before Britain ventures into the so-called EU backstop.
But her promise of a choice between the backstop and extending the transition period was dismissed as “hot air” by Brexit-backers, meaning she was still on course for a potentially catastrophic Commons defeat.
The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Business Secretary were deployed today in an effort to defuse the revolt.
Mrs May said she was “listening to colleagues’ concerns around this issue [the backstop]”.
In key developments:
Mrs May twice dodged a chance to kill off reports that she will call off or postpone Tuesday’s meaningful vote on her withdrawal agreement. Her answer that she was “leading up to a vote” left wiggle room to retreat if the numbers fail to improve.
Chancellor Philip Hammond was due to appeal to MPs in the Commons to “act now to end the uncertainty” that is holding back the economy by supporting the deal and moving on to “heal the divisions” in the country.
Business Secretary Greg Clark signalled that he would resign rather than be part of a Government that oversaw a no-deal Brexit. He promised a “wall of investment” would flood in if the deal was passed.
Former Labour minister Hilary Benn came under pressure to withdraw an amendment to the Government’s motion that his party colleagues feared would let Mrs May off the hook by killing her withdrawal deal before it is put to the main vote.
The European Court of Justice announced it will issue a binding ruling on Monday — the day before Parliament votes — that is expected to confirm Britain has the right to cancel Brexit and stay in the European Union if it wishes, a clarification that could boost the campaign for a fresh referendum.
With the Mrs May’s Democratic Unionist Party allies threatening to help force a general election unless her withdrawal agreement is renegotiated, the Prime Minister used an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme to extend her olive branch on the most contentious issue, the backstop protocol that could force Britain to stay aligned indefinitely with EU regulations if talks on a future trade deal break down.
Mrs May suggested the backstop might be preferable to MPs. She said: “There will be a choice between, if we get to that point, a choice between going into the backstop and extending the transition period. Now, there are pros and cons of both sides of that. People have a concern of the backstop, that we could be in it indefinitely. But in the backstop we have no financial obligations, we have no free movement, we have very light level playing field rules with the EU.
“In the implementation period, we still have to negotiate the terms, but there will be concerns about the fact that they would require, I’m sure they would require, some more money to be paid, for example. So there would be arguments on different sides.”
Offering the Commons a key role she said: “The obvious, in terms of the UK, is for it to be Parliament that makes these decisions.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leading Brexiteer, said of Mrs May’s offer: “It is not an attractive choice and is based on the view that there is no agreement without a backstop, but that is a matter of negotiation.”
Mrs May’s move was seen as a bid to bolster flagging support ahead of the crunch Commons vote on December 11.
Asked if she might delay the vote to avoid a heavy defeat, she said: “We are in the middle of five days of debate in Parliament which will lead up to a vote on this issue.”
Asked a second time, she said: “What I’m doing is leading up to a vote on Tuesday.” Neither reply appeared to rule out a delay altogether.
The DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson told Today: “If it comes to the point where the Government makes a determination to implement the withdrawal agreement with its damaging terms at present, or some future version of it which is still equally damaging, we will not be supporting the Government.”
Mr Benn’s amendment would kill the deal and put Parliament in charge of rival options, and is backed by 63 MPs.
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