Theresa May arrived in Strasbourg on Monday night to agree eleventh-hour changes to her Brexit deal with Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, as she attempted to avoid a near-certain Commons defeat on Tuesday.
After days of bruising talks and the near-collapse of negotiations on Sunday, Mrs May was making a dramatic final effort to win over some of the 100 or so Conservative Eurosceptic MPs who have threatened to derail her deal and her premiership.
The UK prime minister spoke to Mr Juncker at lunchtime on Monday and landed in Strasbourg on Monday evening to sign off a new package aimed at reassuring critics who said the original exit deal would leave Britain “trapped” in a customs union.
Talks broke down on Sunday after senior cabinet ministers blocked an initial draft because the proposed additions to interpret the exit deal would not be good enough to avert a defeat when MPs have a “meaningful vote” on the package.
Crucially Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, also rejected the deal, warning the prime minister that it would not allow him to alter his initial legal verdict that the Irish backstop — the provision to avoid a hard border in Ireland which includes a “temporary” customs union — could “endure indefinitely”.
The new package included a legally binding statement underlining that neither side would negotiate after Brexit with the aim of “indefinitely” keeping the backstop plan for Northern Ireland, the part of the agreement most hated by Brexiters.
With the aim of addressing doubts raised by Brexiter cabinet ministers over the weekend, Mrs May was also planning to attach a unilateral declaration by the UK to the withdrawal agreement establishing the British case for why the backstop is temporary.
Sterling rose on hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough as Mrs May travelled to the European Parliament’s headquarters and it was confirmed that Mr Cox would provide an updated legal opinion on the deal ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Mrs May’s party whips were seen briefing Tory Eurosceptic MPs on the outline of the deal. “I think they are reaching the point where they are about to have some kind of agreement,” said Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader.
Downing Street hopes that the deal will also win over the Democratic Unionist party and that the Northern Irish MPs’ support will help win over scores of Tory Eurosceptics. “We can’t be seen as more unionist than the unionists,” said one Tory Brexiter.
However EU diplomats were doubtful that the concessions would allow Mrs May to overturn a 230-vote deficit when she put her deal to the Commons in January. Even Mrs May’s allies regard a 50-vote defeat as the best the prime minister might expect, but that could provide the platform for her to hold further talks ahead of a possible further vote on her deal.
British negotiators have also been looking for a target date to be included in the exit package by which point “alternative arrangements” — or border technology — would have been developed to supersede the need for a backstop.
In Brussels the commission briefed EU27 ambassadors that Brexit could be delayed until May 24, the day after European elections are due to start. Any extension beyond this date would require the bloc’s leaders to clarify the legal consequences of Britain not participating in the elections, because the UK would still be a member state.
The UK government confirmed on Monday that, if Mrs May’s deal is defeated, there will be two further Commons votes, on whether to leave without a deal and on whether to delay Brexit, on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.
Mrs May has faced mounting pressure to quit as Conservative Eurosceptic rebels claimed she might have to sacrifice her premiership to win them over ahead of the Brexit vote this week.
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