No deal would be disastrous for the Union, says Bradley
Leaving the European Union without a deal in place could prove "disastrous" for the Union, the Northern Ireland Secretary warned last night.
Karen Bradley's bombshell statement followed a day of high drama at Westminster that saw Theresa May cancel a key vote on her Brexit plans because she faced a crushing defeat.
Mrs Bradley said she fully supported the Prime Minister's decision, but said the deal was still in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
"The deal protects our precious Union with the 1998 Belfast Agreement, and the consent principle at its heart, fully maintained.
"That is the constitutional guarantee for Northern Ireland and this Government will always uphold it," Mrs Bradley said.
"The deal ensures that there will be no customs border down the Irish Sea, with free and unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods and services into its most important market, Great Britain."
She said the withdrawal agreement offered "huge gains... for those of us who believe strongly in the Union".
And she warned: "I am convinced that leaving the EU without an agreement would be disastrous for Northern Ireland and potentially for the long-term future of the Union.
"I am not prepared to take risks with or gamble the Union of the United Kingdom."
Earlier the Prime Minister suggested that a united Ireland could move dramatically closer if the backstop is removed from the Brexit deal.
In a warning that caused significant surprise in Dublin, Mrs May openly admitted that voters in Northern Ireland may want to join the Republic rather than see border posts re-erected.
"Businesses operate across that border. People live their lives crossing and recrossing it every day," she said.
"I've been there and spoken to some of those people. They do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decisions we have taken.
"They do not want a return to a hard border. And if this House cares about preserving our Union, it must listen to those people because our Union will only endure with their consent."
An Irish Government source said: "We have been very careful not to talk about a united Ireland during this, so to hear it from the British Prime Minister was extraordinary."
On another day of shambolic politics in Westminster, the Prime Minister delayed today's so-called meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement and vowed to seek further reassurances from the EU on how the backstop will work.
Mrs May's U-turn came after she and senior ministers had spent days insisting the vote would go ahead despite the scale of opposition.
Her statement to MPs is also a clear signal that her relationship with the DUP, who had been propping up her Government, is all but over.
Addressing the Commons, the PM accepted that there was "widespread and deep concern" among MPs over the backstop, designed to keep the border open if the EU and UK fail to strike a wider trade deal.
But she insisted that there was "no deal available that does not include the backstop".
Mrs May is now expected to canvass EU leaders in a bid to secure additional reassurances for MPs on the backstop.
It is believed she is seeking a declaration of sorts on the backstop which would underline its temporary nature in an effort to win over critics in the Commons.
She will hold crisis talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel today and will meet Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague.
In her statement to MPs, Mrs May also said the Government was stepping up preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit, despite saying that this would cause "significant economic damage to parts of our country".
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the Government was "in disarray" and told Mrs May she should step aside if she was unable to deliver the "fundamental changes" needed to her plans.
But Labour made clear it will hold back on a confidence motion until after Mrs May returns to the Commons with whatever assurances she secures from EU leaders.