Theresa May has agreed a revised Brexit deal in last-ditch talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as she seeks to avoid a crushing Commons defeat.
The prime minister hopes the new attempts at legal assurances that Britain cannot be “trapped” in a customs union with the EU will win over her critics when MPs vote for a second time on the divorce deal on Tuesday evening.
Mrs May agreed what she claimed were three important changes to the withdrawal deal after hastily-arranged talks with Mr Juncker at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday night.
Mr Juncker said this was the last chance for MPs to support the Brexit deal. “There will be no further interpretations of interpretations or reassurances on reassurances,” he said after agreeing the new measures with Mrs May. “It’s this deal or Brexit may not happen at all.”
The big test will be whether the agreement is enough to win over more than 100 Tory Eurosceptics who voted down her deal in January, along with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party.
The key new agreement, a legally-binding “instrument” between the EU and UK, largely restates provisions about the Ireland border that are in Mrs May’s original Brexit deal, which was overwhelmingly rejected by parliament.
Still, there were signs of hope for Downing Street. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, said of the new deal on Monday night: “It’s too early to tell definitively, but it’s clearly a step in the right direction.”
The DUP, which props up Mrs May’s minority government, said it would “study” the deal, but Steve Baker, a Tory Eurosceptic hardliner, said MPs should fear “entrapment” in the backstop arrangement intended to stop a hard border in Ireland.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the negotiations had failed and MPs should reject it on Tuesday. “This evening’s agreement with the European Commission does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised parliament, and whipped her MPs to vote for,” Mr Corbyn said.
The focus will now shift to Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, who will give his legal advice on the backstop on Tuesday. He had previously warned that it could “endure indefinitely”.
Brexiter MPs will want to be assured that the new changes are legally watertight and that the backstop can never lead to Britain being kept in a customs union against its will. Mr Cox was said to be “agonising” over the issue on Monday night.
David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, suggested he would back the revised deal if Mr Cox was able to assure MPs that the changes were legally watertight.
“All those things together, make this just about, just about acceptable to me but it depends very, very heavily on a robust, clear response from Cox,” he told Talk Radio on Tuesday morning. “If Geoffrey Cox is at all equivocal about it then I think it will fall again.”
Mrs May, at a joint press conference with Mr Juncker, outlined three changes to the Brexit deal that the European Commission President said amounted to “meaningful legal assurances”.
The first is a joint interpretative instrument stating that the EU could not deliberately seek to keep Britain in the backstop by failing to negotiate a new trade deal in good faith. If it did, Britain could seek arbitration and an exit from the arrangement.
The second is a joint UK-EU statement in the non-binding political declaration committing both sides to developing new technologies at the border to replace the need for the backstop by December 2020.
The third is a UK-only declaration — initially opposed by Mr Juncker — that there would be nothing to stop Britain launching a procedure to ultimately get out of the backstop should the EU not act in good faith and with its best endeavours to agree a free trade deal to supersede the backstop.
Mrs May urged MPs to back the deal. “Now is the time to come together,” she said. The prime minister will open a Commons debate on the revised package on Tuesday afternoon.
But in its motion laid down before the House of Commons last night, the government said “the legally binding joint instrument” only “reduces the risk” that the UK could be held in the backstop indefinitely — an acknowledgment it falls short of some Brexiter demands that the UK has power to exit the backstop unilaterally.
The language might be seized on by some Eurosceptics as being insufficient to reassure them.
Downing Street hopes that if Mr Cox provides MPs with legal assurances the backstop is truly temporary, then the DUP will back the deal, in turn winning over scores of Tory Eurosceptics.
“We can’t be seen as more unionist than the unionists,” said one Tory Brexiter. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, held talks late in the evening with Julian Smith, the Conservatives’ chief whip.
Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative attorney-general and strong advocate of a second referendum, told the Today programme he had received his own legal advice that the agreement secured by Mrs May “doesn’t change anything”. He said: “I am quite clear in my own mind it doesn’t allow the UK to exit the backstop unilaterally.’’
He told BBC Breakfast: “To drag the country out of the EU on these terms seems to me a very unsatisfactory and undemocratic thing to do.
“If the public want to leave on these terms . . . so be it. But for us to leave on these terms, which I have to say take us into a second-rate relationship for the future and one which I think will do this country economic harm, I am unwilling to do [so] without the public confirming their view.”
Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, said on Twitter that he “would be surprised if they are sufficient to enable the attorney-general to change the central plank of his December legal advice”.
EU diplomats were also doubtful the concessions would allow Mrs May to overturn a 230-vote deficit suffered when she put her deal to the Commons in January.
Even Mrs May’s allies regard a 50-vote defeat as the best the prime minister might expect, but that could provide the platform for her to hold further talks ahead of a possible third vote on her deal — though Mr Juncker did his best to kill hopes of any more negotiations, putting a limit on any postponement of the March 29 Brexit day.
In a letter to Donald Tusk, the European Council president, Mr Juncker wrote Brexit had to occur before May 23, the day EU parliament elections are due to start. Any extension beyond this date would require the bloc’s leaders to clarify the legal consequences of Britain not participating in the elections, because the UK would still be an EU member state.
The UK government confirmed on Monday that if Mrs May’s deal were defeated there would be two further Commons votes — on whether to leave without a deal and on whether to delay Brexit. These would be held on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, called an emergency meeting of his cabinet in Dublin on Monday night to discuss the emerging deal, delaying his scheduled departure to the US on a St Patrick’s day visit.
At one point Mr Varadkar adjourned the talks to speak by phone with Mr Juncker in Strasbourg. On Monday morning, Mr Varadkar signalled his willingness to go along with the Strasbourg agreement.
The new measures provide “additional clarity and reassurance and eliminates doubt and the fears of some to trap the UK in the backstop. Those doubts and fears can now be put to bed”.
Additional reporting by Arthur Beesley in Dublin
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