Theresa May was working down to the wire to find a Brexit breakthrough before Tuesday’s crucial vote by MPs on her Withdrawal Agreement, with speculation mounting of last-minute talks with Jean-Claude Juncker.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said he understood that the Prime Minister will travel to Strasbourg on Monday evening in a final bid to secure changes that will allow MPs to back her Withdrawal Agreement the following day.
But sources in London said the Tanaiste was “getting ahead of himself” and there were no confirmed plans for Mrs May to fly to the continent.
Neither Downing Street nor the European Commission would confirm plans for a face-to-face meeting between Mrs May and Mr Juncker, who spoke by telephone on Sunday evening and again on Monday.
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.
Downing Street insisted following Monday’s phone call that “talks continue”, despite admitting the process was “deadlocked” after negotiations over the weekend failed to produce agreement.
European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the talks happening now were “between the Government in London and the Parliament in London”, rather than the UK and Brussels.
At Westminster, speculation has centred on the prospect of the Prime Minister watering down her commitment to hold a vote on her Brexit deal following the failure of talks to provide suitable concessions over the Northern Ireland backstop.
But Mrs May’s official spokesman confirmed it remains the plan to stage the second “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal on Tuesday.
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, who was attending a Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey, was called “an outrageous dereliction of duty” by backbencher Angela Eagle.
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.
In a sign of Brussels’ frustration, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “It is now for the House of Commons to take an important set of decisions this week.”
Mr Barnier told AFP as he arrived at a meeting of EU ambassadors: “We talked all weekend and now the discussions, the negotiations, are between the Government in London and the Parliament in London.”
MPs are expected to vote on the deal on Tuesday, with possible further votes on whether to accept a no-deal Brexit or extend Article 50 in order to delay the UK’s departure beyond the current March 29 deadline.
The Prime Minister was warned that her position could be in jeopardy unless she stuck to commitments she made about this week’s votes.
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.”
And 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.
Mrs May has been told by Brexiteers that rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement is “inevitable” unless there are significant changes to the Northern Ireland backstop.
Some called on the PM to postpone the “meaningful vote” rather than risk another damaging reverse.
They urged her to table a “conditional” motion setting out the terms for dealing with the backstop issue which Parliament would be prepared to accept.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, told the Times it “would not be a foolish way to proceed”.
He added: “I think a meaningful vote with an addendum saying this House will support a deal if such and such is done might be a way of uniting the party or limiting the scale of the defeat.”
Ex-cabinet minister Nicky Morgan said Mrs May’s position would become untenable if Parliament “dismantled” her Brexit policy in a series of votes during the course of the week.
But former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “The Prime Minister is there at least until the autumn of this coming year and therefore that means she has got to make the decisions that are relevant.”
Asked if the PM had considered resigning if her deal was defeated on Tuesday, her spokesman said he had not discussed the matter with Mrs May, but added: “I have seen nothing at all to suggest that.”