Theresa May (seen outside church in Berkshire today) urged MPs to ‘stand together as democrats and patriots’ and accept her withdrawal agreement so Britain could ‘heal its divisions and move forward’
The Prime Minister said it would be a ‘potent symbol of Parliament’s collective political failure’ if a delay to Brexit meant the UK was forced to take part in May’s European elections almost three years after voting to leave.
She warned that if MPs did not back her deal before Thursday’s European Council summit ‘we will not leave the EU for many months, if ever’.
Mrs May acknowledged that even if her deal is passed before the summit of EU leaders the Government would need a ‘short technical extension’ beyond the scheduled March 29 Brexit date.
‘That is not an ideal outcome – we could and should have been leaving the EU on March 29,’ she wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
‘But it is something the British people would accept if it led swiftly to delivering Brexit.
‘The alternative if Parliament cannot agree the deal by that time is much worse.’
Mrs May said her fellow leaders would demand a ‘clear purpose’ for a longer extension that was not merely a technical delay to allow legislation to pass. This could lead to Britain taking part in the EU elections, an idea that ‘didn’t bear thinking about’.
Her call to arms came as leaked documents revealed moves in Brussels to prepare for the collapse of Mrs May’s government should her vote fail.
In a briefing note, the EU commission secretary general Martin Selmayr said: ‘Imagine they have a new Brexit secretary or prime minister – what then?
‘Article 50 has been agreed and the process has ended. It must be clear that the starting point is not a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement.’
Martin Selmayr (seen on the right with Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on February 27) has urged EU leaders to prepare for the fall of Mrs May’s government
Selmayr’s reputation as a master of strategy and brutal behind-the-scenes negotiator has gained him the nickname of ‘The Monster’.
His comments reflect the fear that hardline Brexiteers could topple Mrs May and replace her with a Prime Minister who would push for a harder split with the EU.
Meanwhile, Downing Street told the Mail On Sunday the failure of her Brexit deal would leave the UK stuck in the Brussels version of a ‘Hotel California’ – unable ever to leave the EU.
The Prime Minister has been advised that, if her troubled agreement is rejected again – forcing her to apply to the EU for a long extension to Article 50 – then the Commons would have the power to delay Brexit indefinitely.
The officials warned Mrs May that, because a delay which runs beyond June would oblige the UK to participate in this year’s European parliamentary elections, ‘there is effectively no limit to the number of extensions of Article 50 the UK can ask for or be required to ask for by Parliament’.
The Government has been locked in critical negotiations with the DUP this weekend to persuade them to sign up to Mrs May’s deal. Their discussions have focused on Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s ‘clarification’ of his legal advice on the backstop.
Mrs May is also preparing to promise that Northern Ireland will never be treated differently from Britain in terms of the common market and customs union; and that the DUP will be ‘deeply involved’ in future trade deal negotiations, according to The Sunday Telegraph .
Downing Street hopes that, if the DUP backs the deal, most rebel Tory MPs would then also fall into line. The party has stressed that the presence of Chancellor Philip Hammond at a meeting on Friday did not mean that money was being demanded.
Number 10 is this weekend targeting the 78 Tory MPs it needs to persuade to change their minds by using ‘WhipsApp’ – a blizzard of promises and threats on social messaging apps.
The possibility of Brexit being delayed or overturned in a second referendum is swinging some Eurosceptics reluctantly behind the deal ahead of a third vote on the package.
Backbench rebel David Kawczynski publicly indicated he will now back the Prime Minister’s plan.
But so far the number of Tories publicly switching positions has amounted to a trickle rather than the flood the Prime Minister needs to overturn the 149-vote defeat for the deal she suffered on Tuesday.
Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Mr Kawczynski acknowledged that the Prime Minister’s deal was now the ‘only game in town’.
His comments came after former cabinet minister Esther McVey, who resigned over the Brexit deal, suggested she and other MPs could now back it, even though it was ‘rubbish’ and North Wiltshire MP James Gray appealed to fellow members of the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) to get the ‘obnoxious’ deal over the line.
But other ERG figures played down the prospect of large numbers getting behind the deal when it is brought back for a vote.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis said the PM’s deal was ‘capable of rescue’ if the negotiating strategy was changed and experienced trade negotiators were brought in to work with the EU.
Downing Street is in talks with DUP MPs and its leader Arlene Foster (seen on Good Morning Britain on January 16) to persuade them to back her deal
Writing in The Sunday Times, he added: ‘Judging by last week the alternative would be a cascade of chaos, eventually ending in a remainer attempt, first to delay Brexit by a long time and then reverse it.’
Former Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott, writing in the same paper, called Mrs May’s deal ‘far from perfect’, but added: ‘I would rather opt for the risk of a customs union later – a risk that has diminished in recent weeks – than the very real risk of a permanent customs union now. The choice isn’t enviable, but the safer option is clear.’
Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is also thought to be open to changing hims mind.
If the party whips do not think Mrs May has the numbers by tomorrow evening, her deal will not be put to a vote.
If that happens – or it is put to a vote and she loses – the Prime Minister will fly to Brussels on Thursday to ask for an extension of up to two years: the EU is expected to attach stringent conditions, such as the UK’s continued membership of a Customs Union, as the price for agreeing the extension. That would then have to be passed by both the Commons and the Lords before March 29 to avoid a No Deal Brexit.
A senior Government source said that the Tory rebels should appreciate the constitutional consequences of a long extension: ‘At the very least, the UK would be expected to take part in the European Parliament elections, at a cost of more than £100 million.
Once the UK has taken part in the EU elections there is effectively no limit to the number of extensions of Article 50 the UK can ask for or be required to ask for by Parliament. Multiple extensions are permissible up to the date of the next European elections’.
The source added: ‘It truly is the Hotel California Brexit, as No 10 has been making clear to the rebels’. In Hotel California, The Eagles famously sang: ‘You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.’
If, however, Mrs May puts her deal to a vote and wins, she will ask for an extension to Article 50 up to June 30 to prepare the legislation for Brexit.
But No 10 claims that the necessary legislation could be passed by April 25, preparing the way for a new Brexit date in May.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis (see non the left with Michel Barnier on March 19) said the PM’s deal was ‘capable of rescue’ if the negotiating strategy was changed and experienced trade negotiators were brought in to work with the EU
Mrs May said last night: ‘If Parliament can agree the deal before the European Council on March 21, we will seek a short technical extension to pass the necessary legislation. That is not an ideal outcome – we could and should have been leaving the EU on March 29. But it is something the British people would accept if it led swiftly to delivering Brexit.
‘The alternative if Parliament cannot agree the deal is much worse. EU leaders would require a clear purpose for any extension that was not merely technical.
‘If the proposal were to go back to square one and negotiate a new deal, that would mean a much longer extension – almost certainly requiring the UK to participate in the European Parliament elections in May.’
Mrs May suffered another blow yesterday after Nick Boles quit his local Conservative association, although he will continue to take the Tory whip at Westminster if offered ‘acceptable terms’.
It came amid growing concerns about the lack of discipline in the Tory party after four cabinet ministers – David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Mundell – defied a three-line whip to abstain from this week’s vote to rule out a no deal.
This sparked fury among Brexiteers, with Tory MP Mark Francois telling Sky News: ‘The collective responsibility has disintegrated – you might as well tell the whips to pack up and go home. The government is barely in office.’
Jeremy Corbyn has offered talks with opposition leaders and backbench MPs in an effort to find a Brexit compromise which could replace Mrs May’s plan.
Labour is expected to throw its weight behind an amendment tabled by backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson which would make support for the Brexit deal conditional on a referendum.