Theresa May has made a final appeal to MPs to back her Brexit deal, even as hopes faded it will pass the Commons later on Tuesday after both the DUP and the Brexit-backing European Research Group of Conservative MPs said they could not support it.
Addressing a half-full chamber with a voice half-lost due to a cold, the prime minister reiterated her warning that turning down her plan again would plunge the country into chaos, and risk either a no-deal departure or else no Brexit.
Responsibility for the repercussions of failing to compromise in the vote due at 7pm could not be passed on to others, May warned. “If any of these things were to happen, it would be no good blaming the European Union. Responsibility would lie with this house,” she told MPs.
She added: “This is the moment and this is the time – time for us to come together, back this motion and get the deal done. Because only then we can get on with what we need to do, what we were sent here to do.”
During interventions in her speech, a handful of Conservative MPs who voted against the deal in the first vote in January said they had changed their minds, among them Robert Halfon, Mark Pritchard and Robert Syms.
But with no more than a dozen Conservatives having publicly made the switch, and a majority of 230 votes to overcome from the last vote, the odds of victory seemed slim.
After the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, told the Commons that final concessions won from the EU by May over the weekend over the Irish backstop border insurance policy did not amount to the unilateral exit mechanism demanded by Brexiters, both the DUP and ERG indicated they would could not back the plan.
A panel of lawyers assembled by the ERG issued a statement saying the fresh reassurances won by the government “do not materially change the position the UK would find itself in if it were to ratify the withdrawal agreement”.
It concluded: “In the light of our own legal analysis and others, we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today.”
However, while DUP sources said its MPs would vote against the deal, it remained to be seen how united the ERG would be, and whether some MPs might abstain.
Addressing MPs, Cox urged MPs to make a “political judgment”, and support the deal.
He published updated legal advice on Tuesday morning, suggesting the changes “reduce the risk” of the UK being trapped indefinitely in the Northern Ireland backstop, but only in one narrow set of circumstances.
Cox has been a key figure in the negotiations with Brussels in recent weeks, and his legal advice is regarded as crucial in convincing Brexiters to back the prime minister’s deal when she brings it back to the House of Commons later on Tuesday.
However, his carefully couched judgment appears unlikely to win over many waverers.
It suggested the likelihood of remaining in the backstop permanently has been reduced, but not eliminated, and that a unilateral exit would be possible only “insofar as that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU”.
The prime minister made a last-minute dash to Strasbourg on Monday night to clinch the deal with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.
May’s deputy, David Lidington, then announced to MPs that the UK had secured three changes to the agreement the prime minister put before the Commons last Monday.
These included a unilateral statement from the UK of the government’s interpretation of the backstop; a “joint interpretative instrument”, clarifying the fact that it is not intended to be permanent; and a joint political statement, signalling both sides’ intention that a new relationship will be in place by 2020, making the backstop unnecessary.
Cox’s advice says: “I now consider that the legally binding provisions of the joint instrument and the content of the unilateral declaration reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the protocol’s provisions at least in so far as that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU.”
He adds that if the backstop is triggered “simply because of intractable differences” between the two sides, the UK would be left with “no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement”.
That clearly falls short of the unilateral exit mechanism or clear time limit the government initially said it would seek from Brussels.
May went from cabinet to speak to Tory backbench MPs in the 1922 Committee and urge them to support the deal.
Leaving the room, the vice-chair of the ERG, Mark Francois, said “question after question after question was directed at her on the legal advice, and particularly on paragraph 19 where [Cox] makes the critical observation that the legal risk remains unchanged. Colleague after colleague asked the PM about that.”
Francois said the decision would ultimately be up to individual MPs but suggested he would not back the deal. “Speaking purely and entirely for myself, I regret to say I found the prime minister’s answers wholly unconvincing.”
Others left the room suggesting there was a small shift. One MP said he had seen “some movement” but grimaced when asked if it would be enough to swing the vote.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer – himself a lawyer, who had said the overnight announcement changed nothing – said Cox’s advice showed the government’s strategy was “in tatters”.
As well as securing “legally binding” changes to the backstop to placate the DUP and the ERG, May was hoping to win over some Labour MPs, having announced a ￡1.6bn towns fund and strengthened promises on workers’ rights last week.
But Labour sources suggested few had changed their minds, with the opportunity to extend article 50, which MPs will vote on on Thursday, removing the immediate threat of a no-deal Brexit and opening up the possibility of a softer deal.