The Prime Minister appeared to have momentum behind him last night as the tally of Labour MPs and Conservative Brexiteers prepared to abandon their previous opposition and vote for a deal rose to 15.
But the government was also facing an attempt to hijack today’s vote, with former Tories expelled from their parliamentary party by Mr Johnson backing an amendment to force a delay to the 31 October Brexit date even if the deal has majority support.
Prominent critics of the Prime Minister hardened their opposition, with the former Chancellor Philip Hammond saying he will not be “duped” into voting for a “heavily camouflaged no-deal” Brexit.
Ahead of today’s knife-edge vote, Nicola Sturgeon claimed passage of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal with the support of Labour rebels would “spell the end of Labour in Scotland”.
The First Minister said she believed a ‘nod and a wink’ from the Labour leadership to around a dozen opposition MPs who could back the deal would help Mr Johnson secure the last few votes he needs.
Two Labour MPs have already said they will back the deal when it comes to the Commons today, and around a dozen more are thought to be considering it.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggested there would be “consequences” for MPs who broke Labour’s three-line whip to back the Brexit deal, but declined to say when asked yesterday if that would include being thrown out of the parliamentary party.
Mr McDonnell said only that he would “have a chat” with Ronnie Campbell, one of the Labour MPs who said he would back the deal.
Briefing journalists at Westminster, Ms Sturgeon said she had a “suspicion” that Labour would “allow Boris Johnson to get his deal over the line tomorrow”. “It seems to me that it is possible we have a situation where Labour have an official position of opposing this deal, but are giving nods and winks to the so called Labour rebels in the hope that there’s enough of them that allow it over the line,” the First Minister claimed.
She added: “I can’t speak for the rest of the UK, but in Scotland, I don’t think Labour would ever be forgiven for that.
“They’re not in the healthiest of positions anyway, but I think it would be the end for Labour in Scotland if they turn out to be the handmaidens of Boris Johnson’s Brexit.”
Shadow Scottish Secretary Lesley Laird dismissed the First Minister’s comments, saying the Prime Minister’s deal was a “sellout” that would “open the door to Donald Trump getting his hands on our NHS”.
“This is nonsense,” Ms Laird said. “Labour opposed Theresa May’s bad deal and Boris Johnson’s is worse.”
An amendment put forward by a former Conservative MP, Sir Oliver Letwin, could force the government to request a Brexit delay by effectively putting off the decisive vote on the UK’s departure.
The Letwin amendment would instead make formal ratification of the UK’s departure subject to the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill (WAIB) – legislation that will apply the terms set out in the Brexit deal.
The implementation bill is not set to be introduced in the Commons until next week. If passed, the Letwin amendment would keep the existing legal requirement for Mr Johnson to write to the EU by the end of tomorrow asking for a Brexit delay of at least three months.
Downing Street officials last night described the Letwin amendment as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, but No 10 are understood to be relaxed about the impact of the measure if it is successful.
The government believes there is enough time to pass an implementation bill before the 31 October deadline, cancelling any extension.
A further amendment calling for a referendum on the deal has been tabled, and last night had cross-party support from more than 90 MPs. In April, MPs voted against a second EU referendum by a margin of just 12.
Amendments must be selected by the Commons Speaker to be debated.
In an ongoing campaign win over more Labour votes, Mr Johnson said in an interview last night that the implementation bill will guarantee “the highest standards and protections” for workers’ rights.
But the charm offensive was undermined by the Eurosceptic MP John Baron, who said he had been given assurances by ministers that if talks on a future trade deal with the EU fail, “we will be leaving on no-deal terms”.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson tweeted: “The ERG think that this deal is a route to crashing out with no-deal further down the line. Voting for it tomorrow could deliver no-deal next year.”
Mr Hammond, who lost the Tory whip when voting for the Benn Act, said the government needs to give assurances in intends to negotiate a “high-ambition” future trade relationship with the EU.
“I haven’t come this far seeking to avoid no-deal in 2019 to be duped into voting for a heavily camouflaged no-deal at the end of 2020. But I am not a lost cause,” Mr Hammond wrote in The Times.