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Theresa May gets changes, but will they be enough - all eyes on DUP as crunch Brexit vote looms

Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg yesterday
Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg yesterday

By Our Political Staff

The DUP said last night it will scrutinise new "legally-binding" changes to the Brexit deal "line by line" ahead of today's meaningful vote on leaving the EU.

The Government said it had secured key changes to the deal after Theresa May made a last-minute dash to Strasbourg for talks on the eve of a crucial vote in the House of Commons.

The last-ditch bid came amid predictions the Prime Minister was headed for a second humiliating defeat on her Withdrawal Agreement.

It remains to be seen if the concessions will be enough to see it pass through Parliament - where DUP votes could prove decisive.

A DUP spokesperson said: "These publications need careful analysis. We will be taking appropriate advice, scrutinising the text line by line and forming our own judgment.

"We will measure this latest text against the Brady amendment and the commitments made by the Prime Minister on January 29."

The Brady amendment, passed by MPs in January, called for "alternative arrangements" to replace the backstop.

The Government last night released the text of the motion for today's Commons vote, which asks MPs to approve five documents - the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Political Declaration agreed in November along with three others finalised in Strasbourg yesterday.

The motion defines the first new document as "the legally binding joint instrument" relating to the WA "which reduces the risk that the UK could be deliberately held in the Northern Ireland backstop indefinitely and commits the UK and EU to work to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020".

The second new document is described as a "unilateral declaration by the UK" which sets out "the sovereign action the UK would take to provide assurance that the backstop would only be applied temporarily".

The final document is a supplement to the Political Declaration "setting out commitments by the UK and the EU to expedite the negotiation and bringing into force of their future relationship".

Prime Minister Theresa May said she "passionately believed" in her Brexit deal and had now addressed the concerns raised by Parliament in January over the backstop.

Mrs May said she had ensured there would be "no indefinite backstop" and any attempt to keep the UK in the backstop by the EU would be dealt with by an "arbitration mechanism".

"The deal honours the referendum result and is good for both the UK and the EU," the Prime Minister said.

"But there was a clear concern in Parliament over one issue in particular: the Northern Ireland backstop.

"Having an insurance policy to guarantee that there will never be a hard border in Northern Ireland is absolutely right - it honours the UK's solemn commitments in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

"But if we ever have to use that insurance policy, it cannot become a permanent arrangement and it is not the template for our future relationship.

"The deal that MPs voted on in January was not strong enough in making that clear - and legally binding changes were needed to set that right. Today we have agreed them."

The measures include a joint instrument with "comparable legal weight" to the WA that will "guarantee that the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely".

"If they do, it can be challenged through arbitration and if they are found to be in breach the UK can suspend the backstop," Mrs May said.

"The joint instrument also gives a legal commitment that whatever replaces the backstop does not need to replicate it.

"And it entrenches in legally binding form the commitments made in the exchange of letters with Presidents Tusk and Juncker in January."

In relation to the Political Declaration, the UK and EU will explore "new and emerging" technologies to avoid a backstop and the UK had also made a unilateral declaration over the breakdown of negotiations.

Mrs May's de facto deputy David Lidington said the "joint instrument" reflects the commitment to "replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020". He said the Attorney General would be publishing advice ahead of today's debate.

In a tweet, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: "Our agreement provides meaningful clarifications and legal guarantees to the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop.

"The choice is clear: it is this deal, or Brexit may not happen at all. Let's bring the UK's withdrawal to an orderly end. We owe it to history."

In a letter addressed to European Council president Donald Tusk, Mr Juncker said that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had informed him that he "would be prepared to accept this solution in the interest of securing an overall deal".

However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the new agreement with the European Commission "does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised Parliament" and urged MPs to reject it today.

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