Theresa May’s final plea to MPs to back her Brexit deal fell flat after supporters of a second EU referendum rejected her offer of a House of Commons vote on whether to hold one.
The government is now on course for an even bigger defeat than the last time the Brexit deal was voted on, in what is likely to be the disastrous final act of Mrs May’s premiership.
As part of a “new deal” on Brexit, the Prime Minister offered to give MPs a choice between a temporary version of Labour’s proposed customs union with the EU or the government’s trade plans, as well as a say on whether to put her deal to the public.
Warning there was “one last chance” to pass a Brexit deal and “end this corrosive debate”, she also made a series of commitments to keep Northern Ireland bound to the Union and ensure UK workers’ rights and environmental protections do not fall below EU standards.
But the package was rejected by Labour and the DUP, as well as the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, and last night a growing number of Conservative MPs – who caved in to government pressure over the course of three “meaningful votes” in the House of Commons – were saying they would again oppose the deal.
They included Boris Johnson, the most likely candidate to succeed Mrs May. He tweeted that the plans are “directly against our manifesto – and I will not vote for it. We can and must do better – and deliver what the people voted for”.
With the Conservatives set for a heavy defeat in tomorrow’s European elections, rejection of the Prime Minister’s Brexit legislation could trigger demands for her immediate resignation, even though she has promised to set out a timetable for her departure within a fortnight.
“I have tried everything I possibly can to find a way through,” Mrs May said in a highly personal appeal to MPs. “I offered to give up the job I love earlier than I would like.”
Offering a commitment as part of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) to let MPs decide whether to hold a second EU referendum, Mrs May said she recognised “the genuine and sincere strength of feeling across the House on this important issue”.
Downing Street did not rule out Tory MPs being given a free vote on a second EU referendum, but made clear she continued to oppose it and warned it would add to the growing anger at politicians.
“Look at what this debate is doing to our politics,” she said in a speech at PwC headquarters in London.
“Extending it for months more – perhaps indefinitely – risks opening the door to a nightmare future of permanently polarised politics.
“Look around the world and consider the health of liberal democratic politics.”
The Prime Minister also warned that rejecting the WAB when it is put before MPs in the first week of June would force the country to choose between revoking Article 50 to stop Brexit, or leaving the EU without a deal.
“Reject this deal and leaving the EU with a negotiated deal any time soon will be dead in the water,” she said.
In a final plea to MPs, Mrs May concluded: “I say with conviction to every MP of every party – I have compromised. Now I ask you to compromise too.”
But her appeal was rejected from all sides. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Prime Minister had “completely failed to commit to put the deal back to the people in a second referendum. The SNP will not support that.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed the Prime Minister’s offer as “largely a rehash of the government’s position in the cross party talks that failed to reach a compromise last week”.
He added: “We won’t back a repackaged version of the same old deal – and it’s clear that this weak and disintegrating government is unable to deliver on its own commitments.”
Leading Labour voices in the campaign for a second EU referendum said they had not been won around either, with Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray calling Mrs May’s offer a “con trick”.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said the attempt to win cross-party support for the WAB was “doomed to failure” and Mrs May’s authority was “draining away” while the government’s allies in the DUP were also scathing.
Jacob Rees-Mogg posted on Twitter that the proposals were “worse than before and would leave us bound deeply in to the EU. It is time to leave on WTO terms.”
And Scottish Tory MP Ross Thomson, who voted for the Prime Minister’s deal at the third attempt, said: “I will not support the PM’s new deal that enables a second EU referendum. To do so only serves to do the SNP’s dirty work for them with their IndyRef2 drive.”