Theresa May has brushed aside speculation of an impending vote of no confidence in her as Prime Minister, insisting she is focused on securing reassurances from EU leaders about her Brexit deal.
After calling off a parliamentary vote on the deal planned for Tuesday, Mrs May has spent the day in talks with fellow leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands.
She said she had found a “shared determination” to address MPs’ concerns about the proposed backstop arrangement for the Irish border, in order to allow the deal to be brought back to the House of Commons and ratified.
Downing Street announced that the motion on the Brexit deal will come back to the Commons “before January 21”, with MPs expected to complete the final two days of debate before the momentous vote.
I have seen a shared determination to deal with this issueTheresa May
But Mrs May’s decision to delay the vote sparked a fresh wave of speculation at Westminster about new letters of no confidence being submitted by Conservative MPs to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady.
After reports that some members of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs were claiming that enough letters had been submitted to trigger a vote, Mrs May was asked whether she had been told the threshold of 48 letters had been reached.
She replied: “No, I have been here in Europe dealing with the issue I have promised Parliament I would be dealing with.”
Mrs May said: “Whatever outcome we want, whatever relationship we want with the European Union in future, there is no deal available that doesn’t have a backstop within it.
“But we don’t want the backstop to be used and if it is, we want to be certain it is only temporary.
“It is those assurances that I will be seeking from fellow leaders over the coming days.”
Mrs May held breakfast talks with Mr Rutte before flying to Berlin for lunch with Mrs Merkel and then on to Brussels to speak with European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Mr Tusk described their meeting as “long and frank”, adding: “Clear that EU27 wants to help. The question is how.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Juncker told the European Parliament that there was “no room whatsoever for renegotiation” of the Withdrawal Agreement reached between the EU and UK last month.
Mr Juncker told MEPs the agreement was the “best deal possible” and the “only deal possible”.
But he offered a glimmer of hope to Mrs May by saying there was room to give “further clarifications and further interpretations without opening the Withdrawal Agreement”.
The delay to the so-called “meaningful vote” by MPs means that ratification may not be possible until as late as 10 weeks before the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.
But Mrs May’s spokesman insisted she continued to believe that necessary preparations can be completed within that time.
Downing Street described talks with Mr Rutte as “constructive” and said the leaders agreed “to work together to find a way through”, while in Berlin Mrs May and Mrs Merkel agreed to “keep in close touch on this in order to get the deal over the line”.
Mrs May’s predecessor as Conservative PM, Sir John Major, called for an immediate halt to the two-year Article 50 process leading to UK withdrawal from the EU on March 29, declaring: “The clock must be stopped.”
Speaking in Dublin, he warned that any return of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic risked reviving memories of the worst days of the Troubles.
And Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dail Parliament in Dublin that the UK had the power to avoid a no-deal Brexit by revoking or extending Article 50.
“While there may not be a majority for anything or at least any deal at the moment in the House of Commons, I do believe that there is a majority that the UK should not be plunged into a no-deal scenario,” said Mr Varadkar.
“It is in their hands at any point in time to take the threat of no-deal off the table, either by revoking Article 50 or, if that is a step too far, by extending it.”
Following a delayed Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Mrs May will travel to Dublin for last-minute talks with the Taoiseach ahead of Thursday’s crunch European Council summit in Brussels.
She was also speaking by phone with Austrian President Sebastian Kurz, whose country holds the rotating six-month presidency of the Council.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom suggested Mrs May was seeking changes that would give Parliament an additional “democratic ability to decide”.
“That might include an addendum to the Withdrawal Agreement that sets out that Parliament will vote prior to going into a backstop, should that prove necessary, and potentially that the EU Parliament and UK Parliament must vote every year thereafter to provide that legitimacy for the UK to stay in the backstop, should that prove necessary,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Downing Street declined to be drawn on the specific form of reassurance being sought by the PM, saying only that she needed to be sure that it was something which would satisfy MPs.
Mrs May’s decision to defer Tuesday’s vote was condemned by the opposition as well as a number of Tories.
Leading Conservative Brexiteer Steve Baker said that PM had a “duty” to stand down in order for a new leader to deliver EU withdrawal.
“What I would like to happen today is for Conservative Members of Parliament to realise that we simply cannot go staggering forward any longer like this and I’m afraid to put their letters of no confidence in,” Mr Baker told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
I will meet @theresa_may this evening in Brussels. I remain convinced that the #Brexit deal we have is the best - and only - deal possible. There is no room for renegotiation, but further clarifications are possible.— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) December 11, 2018
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told MPs Mrs May was making an “abject mess” of the Brexit negotiations, and indicated that his party was ready to trigger a confidence vote in the Prime Minister “at the appropriate time”.
Speaking at a Commons debate called by Labour on the PM’s decision to pull the so-called “meaningful vote” on Brexit, Mr Corbyn said: “We have no confidence in this Government.
“We need to do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time to have a motion of no confidence in order to get rid of this Government.”