Theresa May looks set for another humiliating defeat after her last-minute talks with the EU to rescue her Brexit deal failed to win over MPs.
Last night the Prime Minister and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a series of ‘legally binding changes’ to the Irish backstop, the mechanism to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland if the UK and EU fail to agree a satisfactory trade deal after Brexit.
According to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox the changes ‘reduce the risk’ that the UK could be trapped indefinitely in the backstop but do not remove it altogether.
His advice came as a significant blow to Mrs May, as a number of Tory MPs were relying on assurances from Mr Cox that the UK could leave the backstop unilaterally in order to switch their support to the Brexit deal.
In his advice, Mr Cox said that documents agreed in Strasbourg ‘reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained’ in the backstop by EU bad faith or a failure by Brussels to use its ‘best endeavours’ to negotiate a permanent deal on the future relationship.
But he warned that the question of whether a satisfactory agreement on a future UK/EU relationship can be reached remains ‘a political judgment’.
Opening the debate before MPs cast their ballots in the second ‘meaningful vote’, the Prime Minister warned again that Brexit might not happen if Parliament rejects her deal for a second time.
She said: “The danger for those of us who want to have faith in the British public and deliver on their vote for Brexit, is that if this vote is not passed tonight, if this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost.”
Speaker John Bercow selected none of the amendments to the deal tabled by MPs, meaning there will be a single vote this evening on whether or not Parliaments supports the deal.
Has Theresa May convinced MPs to back her?
This morning the Cabinet gave its backing to the Withdrawal Agreement before the PM headed to the Commons to address Tory MPs behind closed doors, beseeching them to approve her deal this time around.
But Mrs May’s efforts have fallen short of the standards demanded by a number of warring Brexit factions.
The ERG, the group of hardline Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, confirmed that they had not been persuaded to back the deal in the vote later this evening.
After the group commissioned their own legal advice on the changes to the backstop ERG member Sir Bill Cash MP said: “In the light of our own legal analysis and others we do not recommend accepting the Government’s motion today.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Cox had confirmed that ‘no significant changes’ had been secured to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Government’s strategy was ‘in tatters’.
Sir Keir tweeted a picture of the document with the 19th paragraph highlighted in green, which states that the ‘the legal risk remains unchanged’.
Attorney General confirms that there have been no significant changes to the Withdrawal Agreement despite the legal documents that were agreed last night.
The Government’s strategy is now in tatters. pic.twitter.com/xBKJPy5WbL
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) March 12, 2019
The DUP, the Northern Irish unionist party on whom the Prime Minister relies for votes, also confirmed they had not been persuaded to back the deal.
A DUP source said today: “The party cannot support the Prime Minister’s deal in tonight’s vote.”
Can the Prime Minister win the vote?
Theresa May needs to win over scores of Tory MPs if she is to have any hope of reversing the 230-vote defeat she suffered when the Commons considered her Brexit deal in January.
She said she ‘passionately believed’ her 11th-hour agreement had addressed concerns raised by MPs over the backstop, which keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU after Brexit to avoid a hard Irish border.
A handful of MPs who voted against the deal last time have signalled they will now support Mrs May, although her failure to win over the ERG and DUP remains a significant obstacle.
Tory Brexiter Nigel Evans, who voted against the deal in January, has said he will back it tonight. He said:”It’s not ideal, it’s not the best deal that I would have loved, but I do fear that if we don’t get this through tonight, there is the risk that on Thursday parliament will instruct her to get an extension to Article 50, and that is something I don’t want to see happen.”
If she does lose, MPs will then be given the opportunity to vote on whether they support a no-deal Brexit. If this is rejected there will be another vote on whether or not to delay Brexit.