DUP and Tory rebels have poured cold water over a “desperate” compromise bid to win over MPs to Theresa May’s Brexit deal, ahead of a Commons showdown which threatens her leadership and her government.
Backbench Tories tabled an amendment to next week’s meaningful vote that would give MPs some control over the Irish backstop, a controversial insurance policy which aims to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Under the plans – which are said to be sanctioned by Downing Street – parliament would decide whether to trigger the backstop arrangement or extend the transition period beyond December 2020.
However Brexiteers also dismissed the plans as “desperate” and DUP leader Arlene Foster rejected the proposal outright, saying domestic “tinkering” to the withdrawal agreement would not persuade her party’s 10 MPs back the government – casting further doubt on Ms May’s ability to win the vote.
The amendment was tabled by former minister Sir Hugo Swire, backbench MPs Richard Graham and Bob Neill on Thursday night, only hours after the prime minister indicated parliament would choose between entering the backstop or prolonging the transition period after exit day.
The backstop plan is loathed by Brexiteers, who believe it keeps the UK too closely tied to Brussels, while Ms May insists it is only an insurance policy as the government plans to secure a trade deal before the backstop is needed.
Mr Graham, who sits on the Brexit Committee, said the backstop “was and remains the thing that gives colleagues the most concern”.
He said: “What we are trying to achieve is something that gets a lot of support from colleagues and that the government, we hope, will take forward because it will make a real difference to the vote.”
But former Downing Street legislative affairs director Nikki da Costa cast doubt on the provenance of the amendment, tweeting: “I know a government amendment when I see one.”
Ms Foster, whose party props up the government, said: “Domestic legislative tinkering won’t cut it.
“The legally binding international withdrawal treaty would remain fundamentally flawed as evidenced by the attorney general’s legal advice.”
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, the shop steward for backbench Eurosceptics, said: “Giving parliament the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea is desperate and will persuade very few.”
And Nigel Evans, a senior figure in the European Research Group, tweeted: “Note to PM – entering the backstop amendments are totally irrelevant and misses the point.
“We need certainty on leaving the unnecessary backstop answering concerns of the Attorney General. Ministers touring U.K. flogging this dead deal are engaged in worst miss selling since PPI.”
Ms May has faced calls to postpone Tuesday’s vote, with senior Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, saying he would welcome the vote being deferred if no solution could be found to differences within the party over the backstop.
However the prime minister appears to be pressing ahead and has dispatched 30 ministers including Philip Hammond and health secretary Matt Hancock across the UK on Friday in a final push to sell her Brexit deal.
She said: “We have delivered a deal that honours the vote of the British people.
“I’ve been speaking to factory workers in Scotland, farmers in Wales and people right across the country, answering their questions about the deal and our future.
“Overwhelmingly, the message I’ve heard is that people want us to get on with it.
“And that’s why it’s important that ministers are out speaking with communities across the UK today about how the deal works for them.”