MPs will take part in a series of paper ballots on Wednesday in a bid to work out what kind of Brexit has a chance of winning the support of the House of Commons, it has been confirmed.
MPs must put forward their preferred options by the end of Tuesday, with Commons Speaker John Bercow selecting those to be put to a series of indicative Yes-or-No votes over the course of half an hour the following evening.
Further debate and votes on the most popular alternatives will be staged on Monday to try to whittle the list down.
Shortly before the votes, Prime Minister Theresa May will face Tory MPs at a meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee as she battles to save her premiership and her Brexit deal.
It was unclear whether the Government would table Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement as one of the options for Wednesday night’s votes, when options on the table may include a no-deal departure, a Norway-style close relationship with the EU or halting Brexit by revoking the Article 50 process.
On Monday, MPs will debate a petition calling for Brexit to be halted by revoking the UK’s withdrawal letter under Article 50 of the EU treaties.
The Commons Petitions Committee said that the petition, which passed 5.75 million signatures on Tuesday evening, had received more support than any other in the history of the parliamentary website. The debate will take place in the Commons’ secondary chamber Westminster Hall.
The prospect of MPs voting for a soft Brexit or second referendum appears to be winning some Tory Eurosceptics round to reluctantly backing the PM’s deal, but there has been widespread speculation that others might demand Mrs May sets out the timetable for her departure as the price for their support.
Meanwhile, Mrs May was braced for further Commons revolts on Wednesday, with Cabinet ministers demanding free votes on the various Brexit options set to be presented and Eurosceptics poised to reject the domestic legislation delaying the date of the UK’s exit from the EU.
Four members of the European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, led by Sir Bill Cash, wrote to Mrs May warning of “serious legal objections” to her decision to delay Brexit beyond March 29.
Their letter, also signed by Michael Tomlinson and ex-ministers Suella Braverman and David Jones, said the extension agreed at last week’s EU summit could amount to an unlawful use of the Royal Prerogative and a breach of the Vienna Convention on treaties.
The Government’s attempt to secure MPs’ approval after the event has “called into question the lawfulness of its actions and has at minimum created serious legal doubts about the legal situation surrounding the extension,” they said.
The Government defeat on Monday night saw three ministers resign as 30 Tories rebelled to back Sir Oliver Letwin’s amendment to give MPs control of the Commons agenda in order to seek a Brexit plan which can command a majority.
But Eurosceptics who have previously opposed the Withdrawal Agreement signalled they could now back it, with influential backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg saying “the choice seems to be Mrs May’s deal or no Brexit”.
“I have always thought that no deal is better than Mrs May’s deal, but Mrs May’s deal is better than not leaving at all,” the ERG chairman said on a ConservativeHome podcast.
He added that Brexit may now be a “process rather than an event” and it could take time to fully break away from Brussels.
Former whip Michael Fabricant said he had reached the same “dreadful conclusion” on Mrs May’s deal and a new prime minister would be able to negotiate a “better and more distanced relationship” with the EU after Brexit.
ERG member Daniel Kawczynski said there was “definitely a palpable shift” among Leavers deciding they must come together behind Mrs May’s deal as “the least worst option”.
“It was a trickle, now it’s a flow,” said the Shrewsbury MP. “We Brexiteers are playing with fire, and we could get very, very burnt if this deal doesn’t get through.”
After a marathon Cabinet meeting lasting more than two hours, Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “If we are able to hold and win a vote this week, we would then be able to leave the EU in less than two months’ time with a deal, which the Prime Minister firmly believes is what the public wants.”
It was “extremely unlikely” the deal would return on Wednesday but it would need to be held this week in order to guarantee meeting the terms set by the EU for the extension of Article 50 to the new Brexit day on May 22.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said the Prime Minister was having ongoing discussions “so that we can, if possible this week, approve the deal and guarantee Brexit”.
She also indicated that the Commons’ Easter recess due to begin on April 5 could be cancelled because time was needed to find a way forward or pass the necessary legislation for the deal and “the country will rightly expect Parliament to be working flat out in either scenario”.
So far, the Democratic Unionist Party has given no indication it will end its opposition to the deal.
DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson wrote for the Telegraph website: “There are some colleagues who I admire greatly and who have stood firmly with us in defending Northern Ireland who now take the view that the Withdrawal Agreement, even though it is a rotten deal, is better than losing Brexit.
“To them I say that, if the deal goes through, we have lost our right to leave the EU.”
He suggested that a long extension to Article 50, keeping the UK in the EU, was a better option than the Withdrawal Agreement even if it meant leaving without a deal at the end.
“Even if we are forced into a one-year extension, we at least would have a say on the things which affect us during that time and would have the right to unilaterally decide to leave at the end of that one-year period through the simple decision of not applying for a further extension,” he said.
No decision has yet been made on whether the indicative votes on Wednesday will be whipped, despite Cabinet-level pressure for ministers to be allowed to express their views freely.
Alistair Burt, who quit his Foreign Office role in order to vote for the Letwin amendment, said: “Parliament should seek urgently to resolve the situation by considering alternatives freely, without the instruction of party whips, and Government should adopt any feasible outcome as its own in order to progress matters.”
The Prime Minister has warned she will not feel bound by the results of any indicative votes.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the Government must “take this process seriously”.
Labour’s Hilary Benn, chairman of the Brexit Select Committee and one of the main supporters of Sir Oliver’s plan, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If the Government isn’t going to do its job, then Parliament is going to have to take responsibility, and that is what we are doing on Wednesday.”