George Parker, Political Editor
Theresa May is pinning her hopes on a last-minute offer from the EU to stop her Brexit deal suffering a heavy defeat in the House of Commons next week, as she prepares a two-vote strategy to salvage her plan.
Downing Street confirmed the vote on the deal would take place next week — it is expected on Tuesday — and that Mrs May would be seeking “assurances” relating to the contentious Irish backstop from the EU.
Mrs May’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins is holding talks in Brussels to see if the EU will make a commitment to securing a free trade deal, removing the need for the backstop, by the end of 2021 at the latest.
Any such assurances, which could come in an exchange of letters between Mrs May and commission and council presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, are unlikely to save her deal from defeat next week, but they could help to contain a massive rebellion.
Mrs May would then urge the EU to firm up its offer through “political and legal assurances” in a final gambit she hopes could bring Eurosceptic Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist party on board in a second vote.
“She is working to get the assurances that parliament requires in order to support the deal before the vote takes place,” Mrs May’s spokesman said, while refusing to comment on her tactics.
Her aides confirmed that two votes might be needed to overturn the formidable opposition to her deal in parliament, while others have suggested that she might need to return to the Commons on multiple occasions to try wear down her critics.
The backstop is a guarantee against a hard border in Ireland, and includes a “temporary” UK-EU customs union that many Conservative Eurosceptics fear could become a permanent arrangement.
Mrs May, who spoke to European leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron last week, is seeking an assurance that a trade deal will be swiftly negotiated to remove any need for the backstop.
The EU has always opposed any statement that undermined the backstop, which is enshrined in the legally binding 585-page withdrawal treaty, and has refused to renegotiate the treaty.
Downing Street is exploring with the EU a separate statement with some kind of legal force that would commit both sides to a trade deal by a certain date, rather than seeking to put a time limit on the backstop itself.
Britain and the EU agreed in November in a non-binding political declaration to “use best endeavours to ensure the necessary steps are taken so that the future relationship can take effect by the end of 2020”.
Any new “assurance” from the EU would have to provide Mrs May with some legal cover to persuade Tory and DUP MPs that the trade deal, the key part of the future relationship, would be in place by 2021.
Mrs May hosted the first of two drinks parties in Downing Street on Monday to try to woo her MPs; more than 100 Tory MPs have said they oppose the prime minister’s current compromise plan.
As part of her strategy, Mrs May is expected to offer guarantees to Northern Ireland businesses that they could continue to have full access to the British market in the event of the backstop being triggered, possibly by agreeing to apply new EU regulations to reduce the need for new border checks on the Irish Sea.
She is also expected to propose giving parliament oversight over Britain’s entry into the backstop via a Commons vote and on its duration, although Brussels would not accept any proposal to let MPs unilaterally decide to end the backstop.
In a separate development Downing Street confirmed that Mrs May would chair a new cabinet committee to oversee no-deal Brexit preparations; it would include members of the National Security Council advising on civil contingency planning.
Meanwhile Downing Street was last night considering accepting a cross-party Brexit amendment to the finance bill backed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and former Tory minister Nicky Morgan rather than face defeat in the Commons on Tuesday night.
The amendment is intended to put pressure on Mrs May to rule out a no-deal Brexit by blocking changes to British tax law unless parliament approves such an outcome.
But Number 10 was said by officials to be “relaxed” about the amendment, because it would have only a minor effect on tax law. “There are bigger things to worry about on a no-deal exit,” said one government insider.