Theresa May in Strasbourg for last-ditch bid to secure changes to Brexit deal
Theresa May has arrived in Strasbourg for last-minute Brexit talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on the eve of a crucial vote in the House of Commons.
The last-ditch bid to make progress in talks, which Downing Street admitted overnight were “deadlocked”, comes amid predictions the Prime Minister is headed for a second humiliating defeat on her Withdrawal Agreement unless she can secure legally-binding changes to its controversial backstop.
Sources in London played down suggestions that Mrs May’s departure for France was an indication that a deal is ready for signature.
But it is thought that the PM believes that there is a basis for further face-to-face discussions as part of the talks.
Mrs May was greeted in Strasbourg by Mr Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay accompanied the PM to the talks.
A Government statement is set to be made to the Commons later on Monday night.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliment’s Brexit co-ordinator, confirmed he and EP president Antonio Tajani will also meet Mrs May on Monday night.
In other diplomatic moves, an emergency meeting of Irish cabinet ministers was called for Monday night.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who was due to begin a journey to America for St Patrick’s Day, returned from Dublin airport for the cabinet briefing.
Time is running out for any new assurances or clarifications to the deal which was resoundingly rejected by a 230-vote majority by MPs in January.
The Government must table its motion for Tuesday’s debate by the end of the day, alongside the publication of any relevant documents.
MPs have also been promised that they will be shown any updated legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox before the debate begins.
Mrs May’s efforts to secure new assurances appeared to have hit stalemate on Monday morning, as Mr Barnier said discussions were now taking place “between the Government in London and the Parliament in London”, rather than the UK and Brussels.
But Downing Street insisted that “talks continue”, after Mrs May held a phone call with Mr Juncker in early afternoon.
Reports suggested that EU ambassadors were told the PM came close to signing off a text with Mr Juncker on Sunday evening, which would have given new assurances on the UK’s right to seek arbitration if Brussels was not using its “best endeavours” to seek a trade deal which would bring the backstop to an end.
Number 10 dismissed reports that Mrs May might pull Tuesday’s meaningful vote, insisting it would go ahead as planned.
The PM’s spokesman cautioned against “speculation” that Mrs May might ask Parliament to vote on a “conditional” motion expressing its readiness to support a form of deal other than the one agreed with Brussels.
Mrs May ducked a demand from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to update the House of Commons on the progress of negotiations, sending Brexit minister Robin Walker to respond to his urgent question in her place.
Mr Walker was jeered by Labour MPs as he explained he had been sent because negotiations were “at a critical stage”. The absence of the PM was branded “an outrageous dereliction of duty” by backbencher Angela Eagle.
As MPs debated Brexit, Mrs May was on the other side of Parliament Square at Westminster Abbey taking part in a Commonwealth Day service.
She read a Bible lesson on the importance of solidarity, stating: “The body is not one member, but many ... And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.”
Mr Corbyn told MPs that “the Government is in chaos and the country in crisis”.
If her deal is rejected again on Tuesday, the Labour leader said the PM should “shift her red lines and show not just that she is willing to meet with members of this House, but that she is willing to compromise with them too”.
Mr Walker confirmed the meaningful vote will take place on Tuesday, and said it was “incumbent” on MPs to take the opportunity to “deliver on the will of the British people and to provide certainty” by backing Mrs May’s deal.
The Prime Minister was warned that her position could be in jeopardy unless she stuck to commitments she made about this week’s votes.
If her deal is defeated for a second time on Tuesday, she has promised to give MPs a vote on whether to accept a no-deal Brexit on March 29 or to extend Article 50 in order to delay the UK’s departure beyond the current deadline.
Tory former minister Nick Boles said: “I am sure that the Prime Minister will honour these three commitments. If she doesn’t she will forfeit the confidence of the House of Commons.”
Senior Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper said the PM would be guilty of a “straight-up lie” if she failed to go through with votes allowing MPs to delay Brexit.
Brexit-backing Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris said she did not expect any concessions secured by the Prime Minister in Strasbourg to alter her intention to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday.
The Newton Abbot MP told BBC Radio 4’s PM: “The reality is we’ve taken almost two years to get here and I cannot see that in these twilight hours, suddenly something is going to come back and is going to satisfy concerns that I have - which I share with, I’m sure, many members of the public and many members of the ERG (European Research Group).
“This deal is a bad deal and what we need is for the Prime Minister to stick to her word that she would accept that no deal is better than this deal.”
Remain-backing Tory MP Sam Gyimah said he could not vote for the PM’s deal.
“If there hadn’t been a referendum and this deal had been presented to us as a template for our future relationship with the EU, it would have been rejected out of hand because we are essentially choosing a third-rate future for our country,” he told PM. “That is why I can’t vote for it.”
Ed Vaizey, who backed Mrs May’s deal in the first meaningful vote, said: “I am going to vote for the deal. I find it intensely depressing to think that yet again it seems likely that the deal is going to be voted down.”
Mr Vaizey said if Mrs May’s plan was rejected “all bets are off - it will engender complete parliamentary chaos”.
Although MPs would then be right to vote for an extension to Article 50, “all Hell will break loose”, he said.