Theresa May was running out of options today as No 10 admitted talks with the EU are in “deadlock” and senior MPs revealed a new Commons move to strip the Prime Minister of power over key Brexit decisions.
She also faced fresh calls to resign soon after Britain leaves the EU, rather than pursue her plan to cling on to deliver a legacy on domestic issues.
Her former policy adviser, Tory MP George Freeman, today called for “a new leader for a new generation” after Brexit.
With her withdrawal deal heading for a three-figure defeat in a Commons vote tomorrow, senior MPs are mobilising behind the scenes to prevent Mrs May from stifling debates on alternatives to her own unpopular Brexit deal, such as softer forms of Brexit.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee who is expected to table an amendment on behalf of the cross-party alliance, told an audience in London today: “The clock is truly run down. The can kicked and squashed. The road has run out.”
Ms Cooper appealed to Mrs May to use her leadership to “build consensus” around a new approach.
“If she can’t or won’t then once again we will work cross party to put forward amendments, so that Parliament can do so instead,” she said. “She should offer indicative votes to test Parliament’s views.”
In a rare intervention, the former prime minister David Cameron told ITV News: “I don’t think no-deal is a good idea at all.” He stressed that he is backing Mrs May’s plan.
Amid claims that a rattled Mrs May might break her promise to give the Commons three key votes this week — a meaningful vote on her plan, plus votes on delay and ruling out no-deal — former Tory minister Nick Boles warned: “If she doesn’t she will forfeit the confidence of the Commons.”
Mr Boles’s tweet appeared to suggest Mrs May would lose a future confidence vote, having survived one in January, which could potentially bring down her Government.
A cross-party amendment, which may be tabled on Thursday, would empower MPs to take control of the Commons timetable to debate and vote on alternative plans.
At the same time, MPs would pass a short Bill compelling the Government to abide by the will of the House, giving binding force to the plan.
The move would in effect create “indicative votes”, which several Cabinet ministers including Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd have been urging, but which Mrs May has blocked on the grounds that Opposition parties might exploit them to cause disruption, according to No 10 officials.
Mr Boles, who is championing a Norway-style soft Brexit, said he believed it could command a majority in the Commons with Labour backing. “I think it’s very significant that the front bench of the Labour Party is now enthusiastically, actively considering this,” he said.
He said the cross-party group was preparing an amendment that would be put down by March 18 to give MPs their first chance to vote on what the group calls Common Market 2.0.
Mrs May spoke with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker by telephone last night, but the pair concluded that a weekend of technical talks among officials had failed to achieve the concessions she needs on the Irish border backstop.
Officials resumed talks today but No 10 described the process as deadlocked because the gap between the two sides was so wide.
Brexiteers hardened their warnings that the withdrawal agreement will suffer an “inevitable” heavy defeat without binding changes that would allow the UK to end the backstop in future. No 10 failed to field any senior ministers for today’s morning media round, suggesting that its policy was in disarray.
Officially, No 10 was still insisting the “meaningful vote” on the May deal would go ahead tomorrow as promised. However, there was also talk of putting it off to avoid an authority-sapping rout and staging a “conditional” vote instead, by which MPs would merely promise to back the plan if specific concessions were granted by the EU.
There was also uncertainty about the status of two binding votes promised by Mrs May if her deal was voted down, one on delaying Brexit and the other to remove a no-deal exit from the table. It was unclear if the votes would go ahead this week or even if Mrs May would try to whip Tories one way or the other. Public Health Minister Steve Brine said he will resign unless Tory MPs are given a free vote on leaving without a deal.
“I think a free vote would be very smart,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour. “I would find it very difficult, actually impossible to be part of a policy that was pursuing actively no-deal.”
In her speech, Ms Cooper said: “There is a rumour that the Prime Minister will abstain on those votes. I cannot believe that can be true … To abstain or run away from the vote would be a derogation of duty.”
Mr Freeman told Radio 4’s Today programme that Mrs May should quit soon after Brexit, due on March 29. “I hope the Prime Minister can get withdrawal through and then I do think we need to choose a new leader for a new generation with a new vision of a Conservatism that can make sense of Brexit and reinspire and reunite the nation,” he said. “I hope we can do that having secured a sensible withdrawal agreement. A panicked change of leader now will solve nothing, we have got to get this through.
“I hope colleagues this week will recognise that: vote for the deal and then we can change.”
His intervention came after former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan said Mrs May’s position would become untenable if Parliament “dismantled” her Brexit policy in Commons votes.