Theresa May is making contingency plans for a crushing defeat of her Brexit deal next week, amid fears in Downing Street that her authority will be swept away in a series of humiliating Commons reverses.
Mrs May is expected to make a dash to Brussels on Sunday — or even at dawn on Monday — as she tries to extract last-minute concessions from the EU that might turn parliamentary opinion in favour of her Brexit deal.
But with talks deadlocked in Brussels the mood has darkened in Downing Street in the last 48 hours, as officials try to work out how to prevent events from spiralling out of Mrs May’s control next week.
The EU has made counterproposals — based on legal reassurances — that fall far short of UK demands. Relations with Dublin, whose co-operation is vital for any deal, have also been complicated by comments by Mrs May’s Northern Ireland secretary that killings by the British military and police during the Troubles “were not crimes”.
Unless the prime minister can make a breakthrough in Brussels, Mrs May’s team accepts that her deal will be heavily defeated in a “meaningful vote” in Westminster, due to take place next Tuesday. “It’s looking pretty bad,” admitted one ally.
The prime minister’s team fears another defeat on Wednesday when MPs are likely to vote on whether to allow Britain to leave without a deal, an option Mrs May says the UK should retain for negotiating purposes. A third vote could take place on Thursday next week on whether to extend the Article 50 exit process from the EU.
Mrs May’s team says that the votes on delay and no-deal could be held back-to-back on Wednesday to avoid a cascade of humiliations for Mrs May through the week, even if there would no disguising the scale of the defeat.
Tory MPs say they have been warned by party whips that in the event of a further defeat for Mrs May’s deal, which was already rejected by MPs by a record margin in January, her “authority will be shredded”.
In a bid to put pressure on Brexiters, the prime minister’s allies say parliament could insist on a delay and demand an entirely new approach, including a move to a “softer” exit including membership of the bloc’s single market and customs union.
However Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, has so far failed to make any headway in Brussels in winning changes to the so-called Irish backstop, the most contentious part of the exit treaty. The measure is loathed by Eurosceptics, who say it could lock the UK in a “temporary” customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Instead, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, presented counter proposals to London, which Brussels officials will be the basis for the resumption of talks with Mr Cox, possibly on Friday. The proposals include legal reassurances that the backstop is temporary and will not be misused to trap the UK in a customs union.
For any further concessions, Mrs May will need support from Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach.
But, in a sign of tensions with London, Mr Varadkar condemned as “insensitive and wrong” comments by Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary.
Ms Bradley apologised for the “offence and hurt” caused by her remarks about historic killings by police and army in Northern Ireland, which appeared to anticipate a decision on whether or not to prosecute soldiers involved in the fatal Bloody Sunday clashes in Londonderry in 1972.
Meanwhile the sense of government disarray on Brexit was further heightened when it was announced that Philip Rycroft, the top official at the Department of Exiting the EU, is retiring at the end of the month.
Mr Rycroft, in his post since October 2017, said he was tired of commuting on a weekly basis from Scotland and wanted to spend more time with his family, but his departure will come at a time when Britain might still be haggling over its exit terms.