Tory MPs have been warned against rebelling in a key Commons vote on the Prime Minister’s EU withdrawal stance as it could send the “wrong signal” to Brussels.
Eurosceptic Conservatives are threatening to oppose the Government’s motion when the Commons votes again on Brexit options on Thursday evening.
Tory critics insist the motion effectively means Theresa May is abandoning a no-deal exit option.
But International Trade Secretary Liam Fox told potential rebels Parliament was not an “internal debating society” and European negotiators would be watching to see if MPs were showing “consistency”.
“What we say is looked at and listened to by those that we are negotiating with,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“They will be looking to see whether Parliament is showing consistency because in the debates and the votes we had recently there were two things: one was that Parliament said we don’t want there to be no deal, and that we will sign up to the Prime Minister’s deal if we are able to get changes to the Irish backstop.
“Our European partners will be watching our debate and listening today to see if they get the impression that if they were to make those concessions, Parliament would definitely deliver on that.”
Dr Fox added: “I think that there’s a danger that we send the wrong signals, and I think that we need to understand that the public want us to leave the European Union but they would prefer us to leave the European Union with a deal.
“And therefore Parliament has got a duty to ensure that we send the correct signals that represent those views of the British people and represent them to those we are negotiating with.”
But former Brexit minister Steve Baker said Conservatives should not be “associated with anything” that “seems to take no deal off the table”.
Members of the European Research Group of Leave-backing Tories have been pressing the Government for two days to amend the wording of the motion to avoid any suggestion that it endorsed a block on no-deal. But Downing Street confirmed on Thursday morning that it would not be changed.
ERG sources said conversations would continue over the course of the day and declined to put any figure on the size of any potential rebellion.
But Eurosceptic backbencher Lee Rowley told the Press Association: “The Government is essentially asking me to vote for something tonight – taking no deal off the table – which isn’t Government policy.
“We are all genuinely scratching our heads this morning asking what on Earth they are doing. Instead of putting forward badly-worded motions, the Government should be properly focusing on the Malthouse compromise – the one and only option which brings together Leavers and Remainers and, vitally, will command a majority in Parliament.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “It is important that MPs support the Prime Minister today in order to send another clear message to Brussels on the need to address Parliament’s concerns about the backstop, so we cna leave on time with a deal on March 29.”
The latest showdown comes as European Council president Donald Tusk expressed frustration at a lack of progress in London.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) February 13, 2019
He tweeted: “No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break #Brexit impasse.”
Dutch PM Mark Rutte told the Financial Times the Netherlands is already benefiting from businesses relocating from a “diminished” Britain.
Mrs May’s spokesman said that the PM had been clear about her position in talks with EU leaders including Mr Tusk over the past fortnight.
“I don’t think the Prime Minister had left her fellow leaders in any doubt as to what is necessary in order for Parliament to support the deal,” he said.
Responding to Mr Rutte’s comment, the PM’s spokesman added: “I disagree entirely. Employment is at a record high, exports are at a record high, companies are continuing to invest in the UK.
“Deloitte named the UK as Europe’s leading destination for foreign direct investment and London as the world’s top city for investment just last month.”
In a bid to keep lines open with EU leaders, Mrs May spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Wednesday evening and is expected to make further phone calls over the course of Thursday.
But she faces an immediate threat in the Commons as Tory Brexiteers have expressed concern over part of the Government motion.
Many back the fact it reiterates support for the direction agreed on January 29, when MPs supported an amendment authorising Mrs May to return to Brussels to renegotiate the controversial Irish backstop.
But members of the backbench European Research Group (ERG) say it effectively endorses another amendment approved by MPs that day, which rules out no deal but is not binding on the Government.
Though Mrs May is expected to be able to weather a defeat on the Government motion, such an outcome would be embarrassing as she seeks to get the EU to agree to changes regarding withdrawal proposals.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is facing up to 10 resignations from Labour’s top team if he fails to push the case for a new Brexit referendum, according to The Guardian.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has insisted that the option of a new Brexit poll remains on the table as he admitted Labour’s preferred scenario of a snap general election is looking unlikely.
Labour has tabled an amendment to the Government motion requiring Mrs May to either put her deal to a Commons vote by February 27 or allow Parliament to take control of the process.
The Labour leadership is also set to back a proposal from backbencher Yvette Cooper, expected to be debated on February 27, that would require a vote by the middle of March on delaying Brexit.