International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said a series of tests unveiled by the Brexit-backing European Research Group (ERG) which would secure their support was a “genuine attempt” to resolve the current impasse.
It comes amid growing speculation that Brexiteer Tories, along with dozens of Labour MPs, are preparing to vote for the government’s deal rather than risk the growing possibility of seeing Brexit delayed or even overturned through a second referendum.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, expressed optimism that a breakthrough on the Irish border backstop was close.
The hardline ERG, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, has indicated a more conciliatory tone on the issue. Three tests have been drawn up by the group which the government must pass to win backing, according to a newspaper report yesterday. The stance has been drawn up in conjunction with the DUP.
In private talks with Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the ERG called for a legally-binding mechanism to escape the backstop, with a clear exit route and an unambiguous rewrite of the language in the government’s legal advice, the newspaper said.
Mr Fox said: “I hope it’s a genuine attempt – and I think it is – to try to map out common territory.”
He claimed that the offer to MPs of a vote on delaying the UK’s departure if Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal does not get through Parliament would not mean Brexit was overturned.
Labour is now backing a People’s Vote and momentum is building towards a second referendum.
But Mr Fox added: “To attempt to have a delay mechanism in order to thwart the process of Brexit itself is actually politically completely unacceptable. And, as I have said before, would provoke a backlash amongst voters.”
Sir Graham made clear he could swing behind the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement ahead of crunch Commons votes.
Writing in a Sunday newspaper, he said: “The whole country is tired of vacillation and delay. When the right compromise is offered, we should pull together behind the Prime Minister and help her to deliver our exit from the European Union on 29 March.”
Many Brexiteers have expressed opposition to the Irish border backstop as it would mean the UK obeying EU customs rules if no wider trade deal is agreed after a transition period.
Sir Graham – who branded the government’s handling of Brexit negotiations as “lions led by donkeys” – indicated there was a growing mood for a deal in the Commons. He said: “My conversations with senior diplomats and politicians from across Europe have given me cause for optimism that a breakthrough is near.”
Michael Tomlinson MP said the group needed to see “black and white” text in good time before the Commons votes.
He said: “There is a spectrum and a range of options that the Attorney General has. I’m going to say protocol good, codicil bad, letter very bad, because that would be prejudging it.”
The manoeuvring follows Mrs May telling MPs the Commons will have a “meaningful vote” on her Brexit plans by 12 March. The PM said if her deal is rejected, MPs will be able to vote on whether the UK can leave the EU in a no-deal scenario, and if that is rejected, the Commons can decide on whether to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit.
Yesterday former Labour minister Caroline Flint estimated up to 70 Labour MPs are against a second referendum, as she appealed for the leadership to allow a free vote and urged colleagues to back an improved Brexit deal given the 2017 election promise to respect the referendum result.
In a TV interview, she said: “I think there is something like 60 or 70 Labour MPs who feel as strongly as I do against a second referendum, but also I think it’s important to recognise many of those MPs also feel that we have to move on, we have to stop a no-deal and if there’s an improved offer on the table, then Labour should engage with that sincerely.”
If there was a free vote among Labour MPs then “tens, twenties, thirties would vote for an improved offer”, she said.
Meanwhile, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said he does not believe the UK will have enough time to approve Mrs May’s withdrawal deal by the scheduled exit date of 29 March.
Mr Barnier suggested a “technical extension” of up to two months may be needed. Asked if he thought it was possible to reach an agreement by 29 March, even if Westminster gave the green light this month, he said: “No.”
He said Brussels is ready to give the UK further “guarantees, assurances and clarifications” that the Irish backstop should only be temporary.