Tory resistance to Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been bolstered after Eurosceptics were warned that if the agreement goes through it could bring down the Government.
DUP support for Mrs May’s administration in any confidence motion would depend on the deal being defeated or ditched by the Prime Minister.
The DUP’s 10 MPs would not back the Prime Minister if her Brexit deal, including the controversial Northern Ireland backstop measure, survives.
The position means that Tory Eurosceptics, who had feared defeat for Mrs May’s deal in the crunch vote on December 11 could result in the collapse of the Government, may now feel emboldened to vote against it.
Between them the Conservatives and DUP have the parliamentary numbers to resist a motion of no confidence.
The Prime Minister depends on the DUP for her Commons majority, but the unionist party claims the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out with Brussels breaches the terms of the confidence and supply deal struck with the Tories.
Setting out his position, the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said: “We will vote against her plan because it is bad for the United Kingdom, certainly bad for Northern Ireland given the legal advice that we have forced out of the Government today.”
Labour has indicated it will table a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister in the wake of a defeat on such a pivotal issue for Mrs May.
But Mr Dodds said that if the Brexit deal is defeated it would be “somewhat illogical” – having seen off the Withdrawal Agreement – “to turn around the next day and say ‘let’s vote the Government out’”.
He warned there would be “implications” if Mrs May pushed ahead with her plan, telling ITV’s Peston: “That’s the risk that the Prime Minister is running.”
Even if there was not a general election, the lack of a majority would make it difficult for the Conservatives to get any legislation through Parliament – including the bill to implement the Brexit deal.
The DUP’s position was set out to Tory Brexiteers at a meeting of the European Research Group (ERG), led by Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Mr Rees-Mogg told the private meeting: “The DUP will support the Government in a confidence motion if the Withdrawal Agreement is voted down.
“But the risk of losing them and having an election is if the Withdrawal Agreement goes through.”
In the latest indication of Government efforts to avoid a defeat on December 11, Chief Whip Julian Smith put in an appearance at the meeting.
Sources at the ERG meeting described it as “full and frank” and “candid”, with the Chief Whip left in no doubt about what would be required to win over would-be rebels.
A Government source said the Whips’ Office and the Prime Minister were in “listening” mode and would do “as much as possible” to get support in “one of the biggest votes in recent parliamentary history”.
The source said ministers were “looking at all options to secure the vote”.
But it is understood that no detailed policy proposals were put forward by the Government at the meeting.
One potential measure reportedly being floated as a way to win over would-be rebels is a “parliamentary lock” which would give MPs a vote before the Northern Irish backstop is implemented.
But a senior Eurosceptic said the ERG had “seen no text for any amendment” other than those which had already been put down.
And Mr Dodds dismissed the “parliamentary lock”, pointing out that “it doesn’t have any effect” on the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out with Brussels which contains the contentious measure.
The mounting problems for Mrs May come after the Government was forced to publish the legal advice offered to the Cabinet by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
It warned the backstop could result in the UK becoming stuck for many years in “protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations” with no lawful power to exit.
And it made clear that Brussels could apply to an arbitration panel for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU customs area while the rest of the UK left.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, the Scottish National Party’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, called on Mrs May to take responsibility for “concealing the facts on her Brexit deal” from MPs and the public.
But Mrs May rejected the claim, insisting the document contained the same information as a shortened statement made to MPs by Mr Cox earlier this week.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that the 33-paragraph document revealed “the central weaknesses in the Government’s deal”.
Mr Cox found that the protocol setting out the terms of the backstop, which is aimed at preventing a hard border with Ireland, “does not provide for a mechanism that is likely to enable the UK lawfully to exit the UK-wide customs union without a subsequent agreement”.
“This remains the case even if parties are still negotiating many years later and even if the parties believe that talks have clearly broken down and there is no prospect of a future relationship agreement,” he added.
Under the arrangements, “for regulatory purposes, GB is essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB into NI”, he said.
And he said that – despite assurances from both London and Brussels that it is intended to be temporary – the protocol would “endure indefinitely” under international law until another agreement takes its place.