Boris Johnson ramped up pressure on Theresa May today by insisting she must get a ‘freedom clause’ in the Irish border backstop.
The former foreign secretary jubilantly seized on news that the PM wants to overhaul her Brexit deal, saying a time limit or unilateral exit clause could ‘defuse the booby trap’.
But he warned that mean rewriting the text of the Withdrawal Agreement – something the EU has so far been adamant cannot happen.
The intervention comes as Mrs May desperately struggles to hold her Cabinet together and fend off a Remainer bid to force a Brexit delay in crunch Commons votes tomorrow.
No10 is pleading with MPs not to back an amendment tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper that would pave the way for a law to extend the Article 50 process.
Other changes are trying to rule out a no-deal Brexit, and stage a series of ‘indicative’ votes to work out what approach would gain a majority in the Commons.
Mrs May seems to be pinning her hopes on amendments tabled by senior Tories including 1922 committee chairman Sir Graham Brady and ex-minister Andrew Murrison that would demand a rewriting of the controversial Irish border backstop – something Mrs May could take to Brussels as concrete evidence of the will of MPs.
Sir Graham said his proposal would give ‘enormous firepower’ to Mrs May in talks with the EU, but insisted any concessions must be ‘legally binding’.
‘I don’t think anybody is going to accept something which is just warm words,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme,
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street last week) has jubilantly seized on news the PM wants to overhaul her Brexit deal, saying a time limit or unilateral exit clause could ‘defuse the booby trap’
Labour’s Yvette Cooper (left) has tabled an amendment paving the way for Brexit to be delayed. Sir Graham Brady (right) has put forward a proposal to accept Theresa May’s deal if the Irish backstop is changed
Mrs May (pictured returning to Downing Street this morning) is fighting to head off a revolt by Remainer MPs
Sir Graham said his amendment was drawn up after meetings with ministers including Mrs May, and he believed the DUP would support it.
Asked if it had Government backing he said: ‘I hope so… I don’t know so. The amendment was born out of a number of conversations I had with colleagues including members of the Government, including the Prime Minister.
‘I had also spoken to people in the DUP too and I’m hoping that the way in which the amendment is crafted can attract that very broad support and if we can win the vote on my amendment then I think it gives the Prime Minister enormous firepower.’
The plan being pushed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and former Tory minister Nick Boles is designed to stop a damaging no deal Brexit, as it would postpone the March 29 leaving date by nine months if a deal is not secured by February 26.
But appealing for MPs to shun the Cooper amendment, a senior No10 source said: ‘Leaving aside the constitutional concerns around the Cooper Bill, it is clear from Yvette Cooper’s comments that backing her Bill means signing a blank cheque when it comes to delaying Brexit.
‘It could mean Brexit is delayed for nine months, a year, or more. It also opens the door to Brexit not happening at all.’ The warning came amid signs that Tory ministers who threatened to quit over a No Deal were stepping back from the brink.
Tory former minister Nick Boles, a leading supporter of Ms Cooper’s plan, told Today there was a ‘great deal of support among ministers and, indeed, Cabinet ministers’ and they had been pressing for a free vote on the amendment.
‘This is the last chance for Parliament, this is probably the only opportunity that Parliament is going to have to intervene in this process, to take control,’ he said.
‘If we don’t seize the moment tomorrow afternoon then we are at grave risk of just driving off the edge on March 29 without really wanting to, and when there might be a compromise we could achieve if we just had a few more months.’
What is Tuesday’s Plan B vote and what will it mean?
What is happening?
Because Theresa May’s Brexit deal was defeated, the law says she must tell Parliament what her Plan B is.
This has to be done in a motion to the Commons, which will be voted on by MPs on Tuesday night.
That motion can be re-written by MPs if they table amendments and win a vote in favour of them.
Some amendments have already been tabled and MPs can keep producing them until Monday night.
What does May’s plan say?
It promises more cross-party working, renews commitments to protecting workers’ rights after Brexit and says the PM will ask Brussels for more concessions on the backstop.
It it based on the current deal that was crushed by 230 votes last week.
What do the main amendments say?
Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment says Parliament should vote on ‘options’ including a renegotiation of the deal to get a permanent customs union and for a second referendum.
A cross party amendment from Yvette Cooper and Nicky Morgan seeks to block no deal by giving time to a draft law that would require the Government to delay Brexit if a deal has not been agreed by February 26. It upturns normal convention by putting a backbench MP’s Bill ahead of Government plans.
An amendment from Tory rebel Dominic Grieve seeks to set up weekly debates that would mean regular votes on what to do in the absence a deal. His amendments sets aside six named days for the debates – including as late as March 26.
The Government also appears to be encouraging MPs to back amendment from two senior Tory MPs.
One from Andrew Murrison would effectively set a time limit on the backstop of December 31, 2021.
Another amendments tabled by Sir Graham Brady, chair of the powerful 1922 committee, would effectively eradicate the backstop and demand the EU and UK find other solutions.
Some ministers hope that if these amendment receive strong support it will pile pressure on the EU to make concessions on the backstop – which Brexiteers fear the UK will be stuck in forever, and the DUP believes risks splitting the union.
What would the vote do?
Legally nothing – but if the Commons votes in favour of a clear way forward by a majority it will be a major political signal of what might happen.
Is it a new ‘meaningful vote’ that can approve May’s deal?
No. At some point, the PM will have to stage a repeat of last week’s vote to get explicit approval from MPs to go ahead with her deal if she wants it to survive.
The PM is seeking to see off the threat of a Tory rebellion, and the possibility of ministerial resignations, by considering whether to hold a ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit within the next fortnight.
A dozen pro-European ministers including Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and Justice Secretary David Gauke reportedly held a conference call in which they agreed such a move would help defer a potential rebellion.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson called on the PM publicly to confirm a ‘change of heart’ on the withdrawal deal.
He said: ‘That backstop is dead, rejected by the biggest ever parliamentary majority; and that is why I hope and pray that I am right about the intentions of Number 10.
‘If we mean it, if we really try, I have no doubt that the EU will give us the Freedom Clause we need.
‘And if the PM secures that change – a proper UK-sized perforation in the fabric of the backstop itself – I have no doubt that she will have the whole country full-throatedly behind her.’
Chancellor Philip Hammond and Mrs May’s effective deputy David Lidington have urged Remainer ministers to keep their powder dry rather than joining the rebellion this week.
Yesterday Mr Lidington argued this week’s vote was not the ‘final decision point’ and insisted MPs will have another ‘meaningful vote’ on Mrs May’s deal next month once she has been back to Brussels.
He wrote in the Observer: ‘If Parliament wishes to avoid No Deal, I have no doubt it will find ways to express a view in the coming weeks.’
The source said: ‘We don’t think there will be fireworks this week. I don’t think there will be mass resignations.
‘People are working hard to make sure amendments go down that keep the party together.’
The Cooper amendment has won the backing of nearly ten Tory MPs – all voted Remain in 2016 and several back a second referendum.
Labour is also expected to whip its MPs to support it.
Yesterday Ms Cooper told the Andrew Marr show that her Bill ‘gives Parliament the option to decide how long [the delay] should be’ and that it was ‘not about blocking Brexit’.
Under her proposal, Mrs May would be forced to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50 if she fails to secure a deal.
The amendments and outcomes
Commons is expected to vote tomorrow on amendments including Yvette Cooper’s. The Labour MP is pictured on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday
WHAT IT DOES: Forces ministers to extend Article 50 beyond March 29 to stop No Deal.
WHOSE PLAN? Labour’s Yvette Cooper, former Tory ministers Nick Boles and Sir Oliver Letwin.
HOW IT WORKS: Ministers lose the power to decide what is debated on February 5, which passes to backbench MPs. Miss Cooper proposes a law forcing Mrs May to ask for a delay on Brexit if No Deal is agreed by February 26.
COULD IT SUCCEED? With enough votes from Tory rebels, yes.
HAND POWER TO MPS
WHAT IT DOES: Give control over Parliamentary business to MPs.
WHOSE PLAN? Dominic Grieve QC, former attorney general and ardent Remainer, and MPs who want a second referendum.
HOW IT WORKS: Government loses power over the Commons every Tuesday from February 12 to March 26 so backbench MPs could vote on Brexit. Could delay Article 50 or change the deal to include a customs union or second referendum.
COULD IT SUCCEED? Could pass with the support of pro-Remain Tories, Labour backing.
WHAT IT DOES: Demands changes to the deal and hints at a second referendum.
WHOSE PLAN? Corbyn, Labour frontbench.
HOW IT WORKS: Ministers must let Parliament discuss No Deal, and proposes staying in a permanent customs union. If that fails, it suggests a second referendum.
COULD IT SUCCEED? Highly unlikely, because it won’t win support from Tory rebels.
A senior source said: ‘It is clear from Yvette Cooper’s (pictured of The Andrew Marr show) comments that backing her Bill means signing a blank cheque’
FIX THE BACKSTOP
WHAT IT DOES: Proposes replacing the Northern Ireland backstop with ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border. Also supports leaving with a deal.
WHOSE PLAN? Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee.
HOW IT WORKS: Allows Mrs May to go to Brussels and say the EU must make concessions on the backstop or get rid of it.
COULD IT SUCCEED? Only if selected by Speaker Bercow – who could ignore it.
STOP NO DEAL
WHAT IT DOES: Stops the UK leaving without a deal.
WHOSE PLAN: Former Tory Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman and Labour MP Jack Dromey.
HOW IT WORKS?
Rejects No Deal.
COULD IT SUCCEED? Yes, if enough Tory rebels vote in favour.