Theresa May has offered MPs a choice over whether the UK enters the controversial Irish border backstop or faces up to two more years in a transition period in a bid to limit a rebellion over her Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister suggested there would be a vote in Parliament over which option the UK would seek if a trade deal with Brussels hasn’t been agreed by the end of 2020, when the transition phase is currently set to end.
Neither choice will appeal to many of her MPs, with more than 100 expressing doubts about the deal or saying they will vote against it.
It presents a particular challenge to Scottish Conservatives, who have voiced fears over the risk to the Union from the backstop proposal – which government legal advice suggests could see new trade barriers erected between Britain and Northern Ireland – and who have also pledged to oppose any transition extension that keeps fishermen under EU rules for longer.
One Tory MP said the offer would be “meaningless if the EU can overrule and ignore” whatever the Commons decides. Any decision on extending the transition or activating the backstop must be approved by a joint EU-UK committee.
“There will be, if we get to that point, a choice between going into the backstop and extending the transition period,” Mrs May told the BBC’s Today programme.
“There are pros and cons of both sides of that. People have a concern of the backstop, that we could be in it indefinitely.
“But, in the backstop we have no financial obligations, we have no free movement, we have very light level playing field rules with the EU.
“In the implementation period, we still have to negotiate the terms, but there will be concerns about the fact that they would require, I’m sure, some more money to be paid, for example.”
Mrs May added: “I think people are concerned about the role of the UK in making these decisions. “In terms of the UK, it is for it to be Parliament that makes these decisions.”
The government was on urgent manoeuvres yesterday to try shore up support ahead of next week’s vote.
Late on Wednesday, MPs who sit on the Privy Council were briefed by officials in the Cabinet Office civil contingencies unit, which deals with major incidents, on preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
A number of cabinet ministers were also summoned to Downing Street yesterday afternoon for an update, and are understood to have told the Prime Minister that a Commons defeat on the Brexit deal must be kept to a minimum in order to keep options alive.
Mrs May’s comments came as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) insisted it will withdraw support for her government if the Prime Minister presses ahead with the Brexit deal with the EU.
Asked if the DUP was prepared to precipitate a general election, the party’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If it comes to the point where the government makes, shows, a determination to implement the withdrawal agreement with its damaging terms at present, or some future version of it, which is still equally damaging, we will not be supporting the government.”
A Downing Street spokeswoman rejected suggestions the withdrawal agreement could be tweaked ahead of next week’s vote to take account of concerns expressed by MPs.
And Number 10 also dismissed claims next week’s vote could be postponed, after senior Tory MP Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, said he would welcome the vote being deferred.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier also reiterated that the agreement with Mrs May was the only deal on offer. He told the European Committee of the Regions: “I must say once again, calmly and clearly – it is the only and the best possible agreement.”
Meanwhile, a Liberal Democrat MP resigned the party whip so he can support Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Stephen Lloyd said he was “genuinely saddened” over the decision, but promised his constituents he would support the deal brought back from Brussels.