MPs will vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal later after she says she secured “legally binding” changes following last-minute talks with the EU. The PM said the changes meant the Irish backstop the insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland could not “become permanent”. She insisted that she had delivered what Parliament asked her to do. Tory Brexiteers and the DUP are taking legal advice on the changes but Labor said the PM had secured nothing new. The last time Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement was put to Parliament in January, it was voted down by a margin of 230. Political editor Laura Kuenssberg said it would be a “political miracle of historic proportions” if Mrs May could overturn such a heavy defeat. She said the legal arguments were set to “rage” all day, with Attorney General Geoffrey Cox expected to update his advice on the deal, as he faces pressure to appear in person before MPs. Two documents were agreed after Mrs May flew to the European Parliament on Monday with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay for last-minute talks with Mr Juncker and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. The first is a “joint legally binding instrument” on the withdrawal agreement which the UK could use to start a “formal dispute” against the EU if it tried to keep the UK tied into the backstop indefinitely. The other is a joint statement about the UK and EU’s future relationship which commits to replacing the backstop with an alternative by December 2020. Mrs May is expected to chair a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning before the motion is debated in the Commons in the afternoon and votes are held in the evening.
Many MPs fear the backstop would keep the UK in a customs arrangement with the EU indefinitely. After talks with Mr Juncker, the prime minister said she “passionately believed” the new assurances addressed their concerns. “MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes,” she said. “Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal.” The Democratic Unionist Party, whose support Mrs May relies on in the Commons, said it would be “scrutinizing the text line by line” before deciding whether to back the deal. The Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the new agreements were an “unambiguous statement” of both sides’ “good faith and intentions” although he made clear they did “not undermine” the principle of the backstop or how it might come into force. Nevertheless, ex-Brexit Secretary David Davis indicated he might be willing to support the deal if Mr Cox endorsed it, telling LBC if the attorney said it had legal force, it might “make this just about acceptable to me”. Monday morning government blues have been replaced by Tuesday morning nervous hopes. The government does not suddenly expect its Brexit deal to be ushered through at speed, cheered on by well-wishers. It does, however, believe that Monday night’s double act in Strasbourg by Theresa May and Jean Claude Juncker puts it, to quote one cabinet minister, “back in the races”. The extra assurances wrought from weeks of talks with the EU will move some of the prime minister’s objectors from the “no” column to the “yes”. Mr Juncker has warned MPs they would be putting everything at risk if they voted down the deal. “In politics sometimes you get a second chance,” he said. “It is what we do with that second chance that counts. There will be no third chance.”
Environment Secretary Michael Gove echoed this message, telling MPs “if you don’t take this prize, there is the real risk of you will see a diluted, softer or less palatable Brexit deal”. Ministers have insisted the documents agreed would “strengthen and improve” both the withdrawal agreement from the EU and the political declaration on the future relationship. Another document will also be put forward by the government, known as a “unilateral declaration”. This outlines the UK’s position that there is nothing to prevent it from leaving the backstop arrangement if discussions on a future relationship with the EU break down and there is no prospect of an agreement. Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer dismissed the unilateral declaration, telling the BBC “unless the other side agrees that only gets you so far”. He told Radio 4’s Today the other announcements “were all there last time” MPs voted and “therefore there are no changes” to either the exit agreement or declaration on future relations. Independent Group MP Chris Leslie said the government’s “Brexit fudge fools nobody”. Conservative Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general, said he had looked carefully at the documents overnight and concluded that the changes negotiated did not make “any significant difference” to the backstop. “It does not allow the UK the right to terminate the backstop at the timing of its own choice,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program. The UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 after voting to leave by nearly 52% to 48% – 17.4m votes to 16.1m in 2016.