Prime Minister Theresa May has guaranteed MPs a vote on whether the controversial Brexit “backstop” is triggered if the UK fails to conclude a new trade deal with the EU by the end of next year.
The promise came as the Government released details of new measures for Northern Ireland designed to win over critics of the backstop, in a last-ditch bid to win support for her Withdrawal Agreement in a crucial vote next Tuesday.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions ahead of the opening of a five-day debate on her plans, Mrs May insisted that the agreement was a good deal and urged MPs to support it.
She dismissed a call from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that she should rule out a no-deal Brexit and “do the right thing” and call a general election if she loses next week’s vote.
And she brushed aside a plea from Conservative grandee Kenneth Clarke to take “the obvious step in the national interest” if her Withdrawal Agreement is defeated and delay or revoke the Article 50 process.
A further challenge to Mrs May’s control over the withdrawal process came as Speaker John Bercow permitted a debate on a cross-party proposal which would force her to come back to the Commons within three days of a defeat to set out her next steps.
Mrs May is understood to have told Cabinet that she will respond quickly if her proposals are rejected by MPs, raising speculation that a “Plan B” could be outlined as early as the end of next week.
She told MPs that she was still hoping to receive “further clarification” from Brussels on the backstop arrangements before next week’s vote.
And she assured them that her plans would allow them a vote on whether to extend the Brexit transition period or trigger the backstop if no agreement on future UK/EU relations has been reached by the end of 2020.
“I can tell the House that, in the event that our future relationship or alternative arrangements are not ready by the end of 2020, Parliament will have a vote on whether to seek to extend the implementation period or bring the backstop into effect,” she said.
Mr Corbyn asked: “Will the Prime Minister listen to the clearly expressed will of the House last night, end this costly charade and rule out no deal?”
But Mrs May replied: “The only way to avoid no deal is to vote for the deal.”
Labour frontbencher Barry Gardiner said the party would immediately table a no confidence vote in the Government in the event of a defeat next week, in the hope of forcing an early general election.
But Mr Corbyn went a step further in suggesting that the PM should stand down if her plans are rejected, asking: “If her deal is defeated next week – as I hope and expect it will – will the Prime Minister do the right thing and let the people have a real say and call a general election?”.
Mrs May responded: “No. We put a good deal on the table that protects jobs and security.”
One of the PM’s closest lieutenants, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster David Lidington, accused critics of her plans of peddling “fantasies” about other possible Brexit deals.
In a last-minute plea to rebels to accept the deal drawn up over two years of negotiations with Brussels, Mrs May’s de facto deputy told the BBC: “I don’t think that the British public are served by fantasies about magical alternative deals that are somehow going to sort of spring out of a cupboard in Brussels.”
Governments of the 27 remaining EU states “are very clear, in conversations I have had with them as well as their public statements, they ain’t going to be going back and unpicking this for some brand new brilliant renegotiations”, he said.
“So, the choice that people have is this deal, or it is no deal, or it is, as some MPs advocate, to reverse the 2016 referendum entirely.”
Next week’s historic showdown comes after the Prime Minister dramatically pulled a vote before Christmas, admitting she was heading for defeat in the face of opposition from both pro-Leave and pro-Remain Tories.
The PM was due to hold a drinks reception for MPs at Number 10 as she continues her desperate efforts to fend off humiliation in a vote which could determine the fate of her administration.
In new proposals unveiled shortly before the start of debate on the PM’s deal, the Government pledged to give the currently suspended Northern Ireland Assembly a “strong role” if the contentious border backstop proposal is ever triggered.
If a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise by the end of the transition period in 2020, there would be a legally-binding commitment to “consult” with Stormont before deciding to either enter the backstop or ask for an extension.
But Democratic Unionist Party Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson rejected the proposals as “window dressing”, telling Sky News: “The only deal which could swing the DUP round is if the backstop as it applies to the United Kingdom as a whole, or to Northern Ireland specifically, were removed from this agreement.”
Rebel Tories have made clear they are ready to wage a parliamentary guerrilla campaign to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Twenty Conservative MPs joined opposition parties on Tuesday in backing a cross-party amendment to the Finance Bill intended to limit the Government’s powers to make tax changes in the event of no-deal.
Among those inflicting the first Government defeat on a Finance Bill since 1978 were former ministers Ken Clarke, Sir Michael Fallon, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Sir Oliver Letwin and Sam Gyimah.
Sir Oliver, who supports Mrs May’s deal, said they were ready to table similar amendments to other Brexit legislation to warn they were prepared to put paid to “this disastrous proposal”.
“The majority in this House will sustain itself, and we will not allow a no-deal exit to occur on March 29,” he said.