MPs will vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal later after she secured “legally binding” changes to it following last-minute talks with the EU in Strasbourg.
The PM said the changes meant the Irish backstop – the insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland – could not “become permanent”.
She insisted that she had delivered what Parliament asked her to do.
Tory Brexiteers are taking legal advice on the changes but Labour said the PM had secured nothing new.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned if the deal was voted down, there would be “no third chance”.
Last time Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement was put to Parliament in January, it was voted down by a historic margin of 230.
What was agreed?
Two documents were agreed after Mrs May flew to the European Parliament on Monday with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay for last-minute talks with Mr Juncker and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
The first is a “joint legally binding instrument” on the withdrawal agreement which the UK could use to start a “formal dispute” against the EU if it tried to keep the UK tied into the backstop indefinitely.
The other is a joint statement about the UK and EU’s future relationship which commits to replacing the backstop with an alternative by December 2020.
The legal view of the changes taken by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is likely to be an important factor in the lead-up to the Commons vote.
Mrs May is expected to chair a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning before the motion is debated in the Commons in the afternoon and votes are held in the evening.
Many MPs fear the backstop would keep the UK in a customs arrangement with the EU indefinitely.
After talks with Mr Juncker, the prime minister said she “passionately believed” the new assurances addressed their concerns.
“MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes,” she said.
“Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and deliver on the instruction of the British people.”
The Democratic Unionist Party, whose support Mrs May relies on in the Commons, said it would be “scrutinising the text line by line” before deciding whether to back the deal.
Monday morning government blues have been replaced by Tuesday morning nervous hopes.
The government does not suddenly expect its Brexit deal to be ushered through at speed, cheered on by well-wishers.
It does, however, believe that Monday night’s double act in Strasbourg by Theresa May and Jean Claude Juncker puts it, to quote one cabinet minister, “back in the races”.
The extra assurances wrought from weeks of talks with the EU will move some of the prime minister’s objectors from the “no” column to the “yes”.
The EU warns ‘this is it’
Mr Juncker has warned MPs they would be putting everything at risk if they voted down the deal.
“In politics sometimes you get a second chance,” he said. “It is what we do with that second chance that counts. There will be no third chance.”
He added: “Let us speak crystal clear about the choice – it is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all.”
Ministers have insisted the documents agreed would “strengthen and improve” both the withdrawal agreement from the EU and the political declaration on the future relationship.
Another document will also be put forward by the government, known as a “unilateral declaration”.
This outlines the UK’s position that there is nothing to prevent it from leaving the backstop arrangement if discussions on a future relationship with the EU break down and there is no prospect of an agreement.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer dismissed the unilateral declaration, telling the BBC “unless the other side agrees that only gets you so far”.
He told Radio 4’s Today the other announcements “were all there last time” MPs voted and “therefore there are no changes” to either the exit agreement or declaration on future relations.
He said Mr Cox, the government’s chief law officer, needed to make a statement in the Commons and take questions from MPs.
Independent Group MP Chris Leslie said the government’s “Brexit fudge fools nobody”.
Conservative Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general, said he had looked carefully at the documents overnight and concluded that the changes negotiated did not make “any significant difference” to the backstop.
“It does not allow the UK the right to terminate the backstop at the timing of its own choice,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 after voting to leave by nearly 52% to 48% – 17.4m votes to 16.1m – in 2016.
What could happen this week?
- Theresa May’s deal to face a “meaningful vote” in Parliament later on Tuesday
- If it’s rejected, a further vote has been promised for Wednesday on whether the UK should leave without a deal
- If that no-deal option is rejected, MPs could get a vote on Thursday on whether to request a delay to Brexit from the EU.