Brexiteers have today given Theresa May hope she could win tonight’s make-or-break Commons vote on her EU divorce after she secured ‘legally binding changes’ to her deal from Brussels.
The Prime Minister was seen smiling as she was swept into Downing Street in the early hours of this morning after a dramatic last-minute dash to woo Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg yesterday.
Last night, at a joint press conference with Mr Juncker, Mrs May said her deal ‘delivers on the decision of the British people to leave the European Union‘ and appealed for MPs to back it at 7pm tonight.
ERG Chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg has said the new agreement was ‘unquestionably a step in the right direction’ while fellow rebel David Davis said that if Attorney General Geoffrey Cox changes his guidance today the deal ‘is just about acceptable to me’.
Today the Prime Minister faces arguably the biggest day of her political career culminating in the Commons showdown over her deal tonight with Mrs May opening the debate at 1pm.
Mrs May probably needs to convince the entire DUP group of 10 MPs, 65 ERG rebels, and at least 40 Labour Brexiteers to back her deal and turn her 230-vote defeat earlier this year into an extraordinary and unlikely victory.
This morning Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will announce if he will change his legal guidance on whether Britain could be trapped in the Irish backstop ‘indefinitely’ – and he is said to be ‘agonising’ over the decision that would convince many to back the PM’s deal.
A smiling Theresa May arrives back at Downing Street this morning after a breakthrough with the EU last night ahead of a crucial vote now hours away
Theresa May announced tonight she does have ‘legally binding changes’ to the Irish border backstop after a last minute dash to Strasbourg ended in an appearance with Jean Claude Juncker
The Prime Minister was greeted in Strasbourg by EU negotiator Michel Barnier
Jacob Rees-Mogg told BBC’s Newsnight: ‘I will certainly be very influenced by what the DUP decide. The very essence of this issue is about the union, and treating Northern Ireland in the same way as the rest of the UK’.
What is the new deal announced by May?
What are the changes to the deal?
David Lidington told MPs there were two new documents attached to the Brexit deal that change the backstop part of the divorce agreement.
Theresa May then announced a third document at a joint press conference with Jean-Claude Juncker .
None of the new documents change either the Withdrawal Agreement or the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship agreed in November.
The new documents are:
- A joint legally binding ‘instrument’ that is based on promises from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk the backstop cannot be permanent and should be replaced by ‘alternative arrangements’ by 2020.
- A joint statement adding to the political statement about the future UK-EU relationship, committing both sides to ‘enhance and expedite’ the trade talks on the final status.
- A unilateral statement by Britain that if the backstop ever kicked in, the UK would introduce measures to ensure it is ‘disapplied’. This means measures to ensure an open border – but does not specify what they are.
What do the changes mean?
Lidington said they ‘strengthen and improve’ the deal and amount to ‘legally binding changes’.
The Attorney General is due to produce new legal advice tomorrow.
Will they persuade Tory rebels?
It is too soon to tell. Tory hardliners will pass the documents to a group of their own lawyers and they will make a decision today.
DUP leader Arlene Foster would not be drawn on what her party in Westminster would do and said: ‘We will be taking appropriate advice, scrutinising the text line by line and forming our own judgement’.
The ERG and DUP are believed to have their own lawyers looking at Mrs May’s legal tweaks.
But former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who wants a second referendum, said today: ‘It doesn’t allow the UK the right to terminate the backstop at a time of its own choosing. Ultimately I don’t think this document that’s been produced makes any significant difference’.
After a day of confusion and rumour in Westminster, the Prime Minister dashed by plane to Strasbourg for emergency talks with EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.
Following a two-hour meeting to thrash out the final details, the pair unveiled a three-point plan for a revised deal in a press conference.
However, it was unclear last night whether the extra changes secured will be enough for Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to alter his legal advice on the Irish backstop.
The vote tonight on the withdrawal agreement could decide the fate of Brexit and Mrs May’s premiership.
The Prime Minister said: ‘MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes. Now is the time to come together, to back this improved deal and to deliver on the instruction of the British people.’
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay tweeted soon after, saying: ‘Parliament asked us to secure legal changes to provide reassurance around the backstop.
‘Prime Minister has delivered on that. Time to back the deal and deliver an orderly Brexit.’
Mr Juncker warned that if Britain delayed Brexit beyond May 22, it would have to take part in EU elections that begin the day after. He also said the package was the EU’s final offer and there will be ‘no third chances’.
What are MPs voting on today?
What is the vote today?
Theresa May has promised to hold a vote on whether or not to approve her deal today. Passing it is an essential part of making the deal law.
Technically the vote has to happen at some point because of the law in Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Action 2018.
What will MPs vote on?
The Government has tabled a motion that broadly says MPs ‘approve’ the deal.
The motion refer to documents that make up the deal – including the two new documents about the backstop.
Both the motion and the documents have to be tabled in Parliament today, before the Commons finishes for the night.
Can it be amended?
Yes. MPs can re-write the motion to say they ‘approve’ the deal subject to conditions, or to say they ‘decline to approve’ it for whatever reason.
Can May amend it?
Yes, potentially. May could table an amendment to her own motion or endorse an amendment tabled by a friendly backbench MP if the new agreements look set to fail.
Why would she do that?
An amendment could be used to send a political signal to Brussels on what is needed to pass the motion unamended.
It would probably mean a third vote was needed – but this is legally ambiguous.
He added: ‘If there is no support for the withdrawal agreement tomorrow, perhaps there is no support for Brexit at all. Let’s be crystal clear about the choice: it is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all.
‘I trust that today’s meaningful legal assurances will be meaningful enough for the meaningful vote tomorrow. Let’s now bring this withdrawal to a good end. We owe it to history.’
In other developments:
- Brexiteers and DUP leader Arlene Foster welcomed the revised agreement with caution;
- The pound rose sharply as traders gambled Mrs May was on the brink of a deal;
- Remainer MPs warned Mrs May would be found ‘in contempt of Parliament’ if she tried to pull the planned votes ruling out No Deal on March 29 and authorising a Brexit delay;
- Sources in Brussels said Mr Barnier rounded on Mr Cox for suggesting at the weekend that the UK should be able to seek exit from the backstop on the day it begins.
The first new document unveiled in the three-point plan was a ‘joint interpretative instrument’, which guarantees that the EU ‘cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely’.
If triggered, this would allow the UK to challenge it via a beefed-up arbitration process and suspend it.
The second was a joint statement in addition to the political declaration on the future relationship, forming a legal commitment to find alternative arrangements to the backstop – including technological ones – before it has to be triggered.
It could be key for trying to win over Eurosceptic MPs who believe technological solutions could prevent the need for a hard border without requiring the UK to be left in a customs union in all but name.
Thirdly, the UK published a ‘unilateral declaration’ setting out Britain’s belief that, if the future trade negotiations break down, it can trigger a process which would see the backstop ended.
Theresa May boarded her jet at RAF Northolt alongside close aides last night for the make or break trip to Strasbourg (pictured)
Mrs May flew to north east France on a BAe 146 jet from the Royal Air Force’s 32 Squadron, also known as The Royal Squadron because it usually flies the Queen and other senior Royals
The week that will make or break Theresa May’s Brexit
The Commons will vote on whether to support the revised deal in the second so-called ‘meaningful vote’. In January it was rejected by a majority of 230 in an historic defeat for the Government.
OPTION A: If it is passed, then the UK is set to leave the European Union on March 29 as planned.
OPTION B: If MPs vote against it again, they will be back in the Commons on Wednesday.
If her withdrawal deal is defeated, as seems likely, the Prime Minister has promised to hold a vote on Wednesday on whether the country should leave the EU without a deal.
It would take place just hours after the Chancellor’s Spring Statement.
OPTION A: If MPs vote for it, a No Deal Brexit would take place.
OPTION B: If politicians vote against leaving the EU without a deal, they’ll go back again to the voting lobbies.
LATER ON WEDNESDAY OR ON THURSDAY
A vote against No Deal would see MPs given the chance to delay Brexit beyond March 29, Mrs May has pledged. This would take place on either Wednesday or Thursday.
OPTION A: If MPs back a delay, then the PM would have to go back to Brussels to negotiate an extension of the two-year Article 50 process.
OPTION B: Rejection of an extension, would mean the country leaves the European Union on March 29 with or without a deal.
Mrs May last night insisted the changes deliver on promises made to MPs. However, the measures did not amount to a reopening of the withdrawal treaty or an end date or unilateral exit clause to the backstop – key demands from Brexiteer MPs.
When asked if the changes amounted to either an end date or unilateral exit clause last night, Mrs May said: ‘What we have secured is legally binding changes which is exactly what Parliament asked us to secure, and what we have secured very clearly is that the backstop cannot be indefinite and cannot become permanent.’
Mr Juncker said: ‘In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what we do with this second chance that counts, because there will be no third chance. There will be no further declarations, interpretations and no further assurances if the meaningful vote [on Mrs May’s deal] fails.’
When pressed, he said the changes ‘complement’ the withdrawal treaty without reopening it.
Following the announcement Mrs Foster, whose MPs the Tories rely on to get legislation through Parliament, said: ‘We note the Prime Minister’s latest statement and update on our EU exit negotiations.
‘These publications need careful analysis. We will be taking appropriate advice, scrutinising the text line by line and forming our own judgement.’
Iain Duncan-Smith, a member of the ERG group of Brexiteers, said: ‘We are waiting for the lawyers to see if anything has changed. There are concerns about the Attorney General’s advice and when we will see it.’
If the vote is lost, Mrs May has agreed to give MPs the chance to rule out a No Deal Brexit tomorrow. Parliament would then be asked on Thursday whether to seek an extension of Article 50 that would delay Brexit.
The three key pillars that might save Prime Minister Theresa May
THE EXIT MECHANISM
What it is: A legally binding text, added to the withdrawal agreement, which sets out the temporary nature of the Northern Ireland backstop.
Known as a ‘joint interpretative instrument’, it states that the EU ‘cannot act with the intention of applying the backstop indefinitely’. If it did so, the UK could challenge it through arbitration and – ultimately – get out.
What it means: Legal advice on the deal from the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox warned that the UK could in theory become trapped indefinitely in the controversial backstop.
This attempts to reassure MPs, especially in the Eurosceptic European Research Group, by showing a clear – and legally binding – escape route. It also gives more weight to moves to replace the backstop with technological solutions.
THE UNILATERAL DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
What it is: A UK-only document that sets out in explicit terms the temporary nature of the backstop. It makes clear that the UK Government’s understanding is that there is nothing to stop Britain unilaterally leaving the backstop if it appears to be becoming permanent.
What it means: This document makes clear the UK’s view that we can’t be trapped in the backstop.
Although not legally binding over the EU, it would set out in unambiguous terms that a future government can decide to leave at any point if there was no prospect of escaping via a trade deal.
THE ASSURANCES LETTER
What it is: On January 14, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker wrote to Theresa May in a bid to address UK concerns about the backstop and give reassurances that it would only be temporary.
It was dismissed at the time because it was not legally binding, but the new deal puts it in binding legal form.
What it means: The letter contains assurances about the temporary nature of the backstop, that the EU would use its ‘best endeavours’ to do a deal, and that it would only be in place as long as ‘strictly necessary’.
It also makes clear the EU will give priority to finding technological alternatives to the backstop, a critical element for hardline Eurosceptics. It makes clear the backstop cannot ‘supercede’ the Good Friday Agreement. Putting these assurances on a legal footing could be crucial.