The government has come under pressure from MPs on opposite sides of the Brexit debate to get its deal over the line and prevent a “hugely damaging” lengthy delay to the UK’s EU departure date.
Two Scottish Conservative MPs – one who continues to oppose Theresa May’s Brexit deal, and one who changed his mind and now backs it – said a long extension to Article 50 should be avoided at all costs.
A third “meaningful vote” on the deal is expected on Tuesday, with furious negotiation throughout this weekend with Brexiteer Tories and with the DUP, who could unlock a victory for the Prime Minister if they can be won over.
More than half the parliamentary Conservative Party voted against a government motion that would allow for an extension to Article 50 of as much as 21 months if the Brexit deal is rejected a third time.
This week EU leaders said they would consider a long delay to Brexit, with the European Council President, Donald Tusk, saying it would allow the UK to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”. Brexiteers fear that could lead to a softening of the deal, or potentially allow a referendum that cancels Brexit altogether.
Borders MP John Lamont, who voted against the deal in January but now supports it, called on colleagues to “start thinking about what the alternatives are”.
“I voted against the extension because it wasn’t tight enough,” he said. “That was a concern that a lot of my colleagues had, which is why so many voted against it.”
Lamont added: “The focus has to be on getting the deal agreed on Tuesday so that outcome is then not required.
“It’s not even clear that the EU would be comfortable with agreeing to a long extension without knowing what the purpose of that would be.
“[Former cabinet minister] Esther McVey has now said she might support the deal. I suspect there will be others once they start thinking about the alternatives.”
But Aberdeen South MP Ross Thomson said that while he wanted to be able to vote for a deal that allows a smooth exit from the EU, he would not back it “just because time is running out”.
“There are some who, for reasons of political expediency, would like this to just move on – let’s just get over the line,” he said.
“My response is, I agree, I want to move on – but it depends what you’re moving on to. I’m very keen to get this right because it will determine our direction of travel for a generation.”
Thomson underlined the non-binding status of this week’s votes, saying they were “political noise”.
“I want to see the UK leave in the most orderly way possible, but I can’t jeopardise what I feel are some very fundamental things, like the integrity of the United Kingdom just to see that through,” he said.
“The Prime Minister has heralded the Brexit date of 29 March in speeches to the nation. It’s been legislated by parliament.
“To break that commitment is not just going to be hugely damaging to the Conservative Party but to people’s trust in parliament and parliamentary democracy itself.”
Lamont said the government “doesn’t have to move too much”, and suggested a redrafting of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice on the Irish border backstop would be enough to make him reconsider his vote.
“Even maybe the way the legal advice is presented [could make a difference],” he said. “To have all of those meetings, and to bring back what you brought back, but to then have the Attorney General say at the very end of his letter, nothing has changed – how could you expect colleagues who didn’t support the deal back in January to now vote for it?”
Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics yesterday suggested a delay of up to two years could be required if MPs continue to reject the Brexit deal.
“Number one priority would be the deal that is reached is passed,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today. “If it is not the case, what we need is clear vision from the UK government how much time UK needs to come up with new proposals, new ideas how we proceed. In that case it’s not a couple of months, I believe then we are talking about maybe one or two years.”
European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans suggested that any extension to Article 50 could be a two-stage process, initially limited to a few weeks unless May could set out what she wanted to achieve with the extra time.