After a day of confusion and rumour at Westminster, the Prime Minister dashed by plane to Strasbourg for emergency talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.
Her deputy David Lidington told MPs she had won legally binding changes to the Irish backstop to reassure Eurosceptics that they can vote for her withdrawal agreement tonight without locking Britain into a customs union.
If the breakthrough is signed off, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is expected to set out fresh legal advice to MPs today before they vote on the withdrawal agreement for the second time. The first vote resulted in a record Government defeat.
Sealed with a kiss: Michel Barnier (right) kisses the hand of Prime Minister Theresa Mayas she arrives at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France for last-minute emergency talks over the backstop arrangement
Leading Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg congratulated Mrs May on the concessions she had drawn out of the EU, but regarding today’s ‘Meaningful Vote’ said that ‘it’s too early to tell definitively but it’s clearly a step in the right direction’
Brexit minister Robin Walker said MPs would tonight ‘face a fundamental choice – back the Brexit deal or risk a delay that would mean months more spent arguing about Brexit and prolonging the current uncertainty – uncertainty that would do nothing but pass control to Brussels and increase the risks’.
Responding to the news, Jacob Rees-Mogg told BBC Newsnight: ‘It’s too early to tell definitively but it’s clearly a step in the right direction.’
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The leading Eurosceptic added that it would be important to see the details and that support from the DUP would be ‘a very important and significant factor’.
Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who voted against the deal in January, said: ‘I remain hopeful that the Attorney General’s legal advice will change, that the DUP will vote with us and we can get this done.’
If the vote is lost, Mrs May has agreed to give MPs the chance to rule out No Deal tomorrow. Parliament would then be asked on Thursday whether to seek an extension of Article 50 that would delay Brexit.
A cross-party group of MPs, led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tories Sir Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles, yesterday said it would then seize control of the agenda and try to force through a super-soft Brexit that would allow free movement to continue.
Some senior Tories last night said they believed Mrs May would rather call an election than lose control of the Brexit process. As a source said she had ordered her team to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the talks:
- The Government tabled a motion including the changes to the withdrawal agreement;
- The pound rose sharply on the international currency markets as traders gambled Mrs May was on the brink of a deal;
- DUP leader Arlene Foster – whose support is seen as vital – was being briefed on details of the plan last night by Tory chief whip Julian Smith;
- 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 EU negotiator Michel 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 Irish cabinet was summoned to emergency talks in Dublin to discuss the concessions being offered by the EU.
After weeks of talks, the EU is understood to have agreed on a legally-binding document in which Brussels accepts it ‘cannot act with the intention of applying the backstop indefinitely’.
Failure to keep the promise would allow the UK to seek legal arbitration that could open up a route out of a mechanism which Eurosceptics fear could be used to keep Britain in a customs union against its will.
The second strand of the deal would give legal status to a joint letter sent by Mr Juncker and EU Council president Donald Tusk in January that offered a range of assurances – including one that accepts the backstop cannot supersede the Good Friday Agreement.
The third, and most contentious, element of the legal package is the ‘unilateral declaration’, which was resisted by Dublin. The EU would not be required to endorse the statement but would agree not to dispute it in public.
The Prime Minister looking glum earlier today at Westminster Abbey in London before giving a reading at the Commonwealth Service
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, (centre left) welcomes Prime Minister Theresa May to the European Parliament in Strasbourg
Mrs May and Mr Juncker spoke to journalists during a press conference regarding the new legally binding agreement that would prevent the backstop becoming permanent if the deal is agreed in Parliament
Brussels has also agreed to put much more emphasis on agreeing ‘alternative arrangements’ to keep open the land border on the island of Ireland.
Brexiteer MPs said the plans would be examined by a ‘star chamber’ of Eurosceptic lawyers led by Sir Bill Cash today to decide whether Mr Cox would be justified in altering his advice.
Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith said he was ‘open-minded’ about whether the changes would go far enough to win his support. But he said Eurosceptic MPs would need time to make their own legal assessment, adding: ‘The key thing is that the Attorney General should be able to say that he has changed his opinion and no longer is the backstop an entrapment as he said previously.’
In the Commons, Brexiteer Tory MP Mark Francois questioned whether Mr Cox would be ‘marking his own homework’ because he had helped to draw up the agreement.
But other MPs groaned and said ‘no, no, no’.
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.