Theresa May has urged MPs to back her Brexit deal “for the country’s sake” as Tuesday’s Commons vote looms closer.
She warned of “paralysis in Parliament” if the deal is rejected and said trust in politics would suffer “catastrophic harm” if the UK did not leave the EU.
The PM welcomed new EU assurances over the impact of the deal on Northern Ireland, saying they had “legal force”.
The EU said it didn’t want to use the “backstop” but, if it did, it would be for “the shortest possible period”.
The “backstop” is the fallback plan to avoid any return to physical Northern Ireland border checks.
In a letter to Mrs May, the EU said commitments to look at alternatives to the customs arrangement and to fast-track talks on future relations had “legal value” and would be treated “in the most solemn manner”.
Speaking in Stoke-on-Trent, Mrs May said “they make absolutely clear that the backstop is not a threat nor a trap”.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said the assurances offered “legal force” to the UK, but admitted they did not alter the “fundamental meanings” in the Withdrawal Agreement – namely that the UK is indefinitely committed to the backstop if it comes into force, as neither side can unilaterally withdraw from it.
Critics said they fell way short of the firm end date or the unilateral right to withdraw they wanted, with the Democratic Unionist Party saying “nothing has changed” and accusing the prime minister of “foolish talk”.
Assistant whip Gareth Johnson became the latest member of the government to quit his job over the deal, saying in his resignation letter to the PM that it would be “detrimental to our nation’s interests”.
He added: “The time has come to place my loyalty to my country above my loyalty to the government.”
Mrs May’s speech comes amid reports MPs plan to take control of Brexit if her deal is defeated.
Labour and the other opposition parties will vote against the deal while about 100 Conservative MPs, and the Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 MPs, could also join them.
Warm words aren’t enough
By Alex Forsyth, BBC political correspondent
The letter from Presidents Juncker and Tusk was deliberately released at the moment No 10 hoped it might have the most impact – the eve of the crucial Brexit vote.
But regardless of the timing, the attempt to reassure hasn’t done enough to convince many senior Brexiteers to swing behind the prime minister’s deal.
The contentious Northern Ireland backstop remains the biggest sticking point, and nothing short of a legally watertight guarantee that it can’t go on indefinitely will be enough for many of those with concerns.
At this stage, the EU has made clear it won’t reopen the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement to include such a guarantee.
So, however warm the words of reassurance offered today, it seems they won’t be enough to persuade many opponents to Mrs May’s deal to change their mind.
Speaking to factory workers, Mrs May said she now believed MPs blocking Brexit was more likely than a no-deal scenario.
“As we have seen over the last few weeks, 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…
“While no deal remains a serious risk, having observed events over the last seven days, it is now my judgment that the more likely outcome is a paralysis in Parliament that risks there being no Brexit.”
What happens next?
Here is what is likely to happen:
- Monday – Day four of MPs’ Brexit debate, with the PM set to make a statement to the Commons setting out reassurances from the EU over the Irish backstop
- Tuesday – Day five of debate followed by “meaningful vote” on the PM’s deal. MPs will also get to vote on amendments that could reshape the deal. If the deal is rejected Theresa May will get three working days to come up with a “plan B”
- Wednesday – Mrs May could head to Brussels to try to get further concessions from the EU
- Monday 21 January – Expected Commons vote on “Plan B”
What has the UK been offered on Northern Ireland?
The so-called Irish backstop will see the UK and EU share a single customs territory until they settle their future relationship or come up with another solution to stop a hard border.
Many Tory MPs, as well as the Democratic Unionists, are adamantly opposed to it.
The EU has given fresh written assurances about how the backstop might be triggered and how long it would last. The key points, in a letter from top officials Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker to the PM, are:
- The backstop will not affect or supersede the provisions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement
- The backstop will not extend regulatory alignment with EU law in Northern Ireland beyond what is strictly necessary to avoid a hard border
- Alternatives to the backstop such as “facilitative arrangements or technologies”, will be looked at with progress considered every six months after the UK’s departure
- Any alternative arrangements would not be “required to replicate” the backstop “provided the underlying objectives continue to be met”
“Were the backstop to enter into force in whole or in part, it is intended to apply only temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement,” they said.
“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,” it said.
But Conservative former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey said “warm words” from the EU were insufficient.
The DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds said there were no “legally binding assurances” as talked about by the PM in December, adding: “In fact, there is nothing new.”
And shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Mrs May had “once again failed to deliver”, adding: “It is a reiteration of the EU’s existing position. Once again, nothing has changed.”
What about reports of MPs planning to take over Brexit?
The UK will leave the EU on 29 March unless there is a new act of Parliament preventing that.
Because the government controls the timetable for Commons business, it was assumed that this would not be possible.
But three senior Conservative backbenchers are to publish a bill on Monday night that would allow MPs to frame a “compromise” Brexit deal if Theresa May fails to come up with a plan B, Tory Nick Boles has revealed.
Mr Boles said he, Sir Oliver Letwin and Nicky Morgan were behind the “European Union Withdrawal Number 2 Bill”, which would see the Liaison Committee – made up of the chairmen and chairwomen of all the Commons select committees – take a key role if the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement is rejected by Parliament.
Mr Boles said all three planned to vote for the PM’s deal, but would act if it failed.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This bill would do the following: it would give the Government three more weeks to get a compromise deal, a plan B, through Parliament so that we are leaving the EU on time on March 29 with a deal.
“If that failed, it would… give the Liaison Committee the responsibility to try and come up with its own compromise deal, which would have to go back to the House for a vote.”
Downing Street has said it is “extremely concerned” about the plot, which it says could potentially overturn centuries of Parliamentary precedent.
Are more Tory backbenchers coming round to the deal?
Five Conservative Brexiteer MPs who have been critics of the withdrawal agreement have now said they will support the government in the vote on Tuesday.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP for the Cotswolds, said he still had “deep misgivings” about many aspects of Mrs May’s deal.
But he said: “The events of last week have clearly demonstrated that the Speaker and MPs who wish to remain in the EU will stop at nothing to prevent that happening.”
Former Public Accounts Committee chairman Sir Edward Leigh said Brexit-supporting MPs were “playing with fire” if they voted down the deal.
Former ministers Andrew Selous and Andrew Murrison, and Caroline Johnson, MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, also said they were backing the government despite reservations.
What are the chances of another referendum on leaving the EU?
A cross-party group of anti-Brexit politicians have published proposed legislation to bring about a second referendum on leaving the EU.
The draft Bill recommends that the public be asked whether they want to remain in the EU or leave under the prime minister’s deal.
The MPs behind the draft legislation point out that Article 50 – the two-year process by which an EU member leaves the bloc – would have to be extended in order for another poll to take place, meaning the UK would remain a member beyond 29 March.
The legislation could be introduced through the House of Lords under plans being considered by the group.