Downing Street admitted on Monday that Brexit talks in Brussels are deadlocked, leaving Theresa May facing a heavy defeat if she presents her largely unchanged deal to MPs for a “meaningful vote” tomorrow.
Mrs May spoke to Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, on Sunday night but made no headway in her efforts to amend the treaty to ensure that Britain could not be “trapped” indefinitely in a customs union.
The prime minister had been ready to travel to Brussels on Monday to meet Mr Juncker to finalise changes to the deal, but that trip now looks in doubt. Talks at an official level are continuing.
British officials say that a draft text on the table after a weekend of negotiations in Brussels was nowhere near strong enough to take back to the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, made it clear that it would not allow him to change his legal advice that the Irish backstop contained in the exit treaty — including a temporary customs union — could “endure indefinitely”.
Faced with deadlock, Mrs May agreed to sleep on a decision as she faced the prospect of another calamitous Brexit defeat. Her plane had been kept on standby at RAF Northolt for an early Monday flight to Brussels.
Mrs May had promised MPs a vote on her deal by Tuesday and Downing Street has insisted that she will honour that pledge: “We want people to have their say,” said one ally of the prime minister.
But Mrs May is under pressure from senior Tories to pull the vote rather than face another crushing defeat, possibly on a similar scale to the 230 vote defeat she suffered in January the last time MPs gave their verdict on her deal.
One possibility would be to give MPs a “conditional vote”, asking them to approve the deal that Mr Cox has been seeking, rather than the one actually on the table.
However, there would be outrage among MPs — especially pro-European Conservatives — if Mrs May dropped her promise to give the Commons a series of Brexit votes this week.
Mrs May had given a solemn undertaking to MPs that there would be a “meaningful vote” on her deal by March 12; if she lost there would be two votes by Thursday on whether to halt a no-deal exit and on seeking an extension to the Article 50 exit process.
Downing Street has insisted the votes would go ahead, but Mrs May has previously pulled out of such commitments at very short notice, notably when she abandoned a vote on her deal in December.
She has faced mounting pressure to quit as Conservative Eurosceptic rebels claimed she might have to sacrifice her premiership to win them over ahead of the Brexit vote this week.
Several cabinet ministers have said Mrs May should announce her plans to resign to win the support of Tory Brexiters, who believe that a change in Number 10 would signal a more robust approach to talks on a future UK/EU trade deal.
Nicky Morgan, former education secretary, said that if Mrs May lost the latest vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday her time would be up.
“I think it would be very difficult for the prime minister to stay in office very much longer,” she told the BBC.
Downing Street has insisted Mrs May had not discussed the idea and was not about to quit, although senior Conservatives conceded the idea had been floated by MPs with chief whip Julian Smith as a means of breaking the parliamentary deadlock and winning over some of the 100 Tory Eurosceptics who voted against the deal the first time. Mrs May has previously only said she will resign before the next general election, scheduled for 2022.
Eurosceptics are seeking “legally binding” changes to the Irish backstop in Britain’s withdrawal treaty — the insurance policy to prevent a hard border in Ireland — to show that the UK cannot be held in a customs union with the EU against its will.
With talks in Brussels making little progress on the issue, Downing Street was trying to limit the damage of what threatens to be a disastrous week for Mrs May.
To avoid splitting her party, whips have advised that she give Tory MPs and ministers a free vote on the no-deal question — a move that would further enrage Eurosceptics who want to keep no-deal on the table.