Theresa May has urged MPs to give her Brexit deal “a second look” in a last-ditch appeal ahead of Tuesday’s meaningful vote, hours after the EU attempted to back the British prime minister by promising a Northern Ireland “backstop” plan would be “as short as possible”.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mrs May said that failing to deliver on Brexit would be a “subversion of our democracy”, adding: “Whatever you may have previously concluded, over these next 24 hours, give this deal a second look.”
A three-page letter from Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, European Council president, made no significant revisions to the terms of Britain’s Brexit package. But the two leaders said they expected any use of the contentious Irish backstop, which many Brexiters say would “trap” the UK in a customs arrangement with the EU, would be replaced “as quickly as possible”.
While Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk’s assurances could help Mrs May remind MPs of the main elements of her deal, they fell short of UK requests to insert a new target date for both sides to ensure the backstop would only be used for a year, if at all.
Mrs May said she understood that MPs wanted a unilateral exit mechanism that would enable the UK to leave the backstop if it came into force. But she told the Commons: “The EU would not agree to this.”
Mrs May warned MPs that they risked “letting the British people down” if they vote down her deal on Tuesday. She said the latest assurances from the EU did give the UK the “legal force” it sought.
“It is not perfect but when the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this House tomorrow and ask: ‘Did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the EU, did we safeguard our economy, security or union or did we let the British people down?’,” she said.
Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour leader, is planning to initiate a vote of no confidence in the Tory government as early as Tuesday night “barring an actual earthquake”, according to senior Labour figures. He will launch the attempt to bring about a general election despite lacking the requisite support in the Commons.
However, Labour’s leadership is still at odds over whether to swing its weight behind a second referendum if the no-confidence move fails.
After Mrs May’s statement on Monday, Mr Corbyn said: “I’m sure members across the House will not be fooled by what has been produced today. It is clear that what we will be voting on this week is exactly the same as what we should have been voting on in December.”
Earlier on Monday during a visit to Stoke-on-Trent, a heavily Leave-voting Midlands city, Mrs May said she believed parliament blocking Brexit was a more likely outcome than the UK leaving without a deal.
“It’s now my judgment that a more likely outcome is a paralysis in parliament that risks no Brexit,” she said. “There are some in Westminster who would wish to delay or even stop Brexit and who will use every device available to them to do so.”
Mrs May hopes to keep the scale of the defeat to a margin of less than 100 in Tuesday evening’s vote, but some Conservative MPs forecast Mrs May could lose by more than 200.
Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk stressed in their letter that they were “not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement” — the 585-page treaty outlining the terms of Britain’s departure, including the backstop plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
In a letter of her own to the EU institutions, Mrs May had noted some MPs’ fear that Brussels would not handle trade negotiations “energetically or ambitiously” or “down tools altogether and leave the UK permanently in the backstop arrangement”.
In response, Mr Juncker confirmed the commission saw the backstop as “a suboptimal trading relationship for both sides” that it “does not wish” to see enforced.
“The commission is committed to providing the necessary political impetus and resources to help achieving the objective of making this period as short as possible,” the commission president adds.
Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, told Mrs May in a letter that, while the EU’s letter did not “alter the fundamental meanings” of her exit deal, its assurances did have “legal force”.
By contrast, a spokesman for Mr Juncker said the EU would not now “engage in interpreting the interpretation or clarifying the clarification” of the letter’s content ahead of the meaningful vote.
In a further blow to Mrs May, Gareth Johnson, an assistant whip, resigned from the government on Monday to vote against the agreement. “It is clear this deal would be detrimental to our nation’s interests,” he wrote in his resignation letter to the prime minister.
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