Theresa May is to embark on a frantic round of European diplomacy in a final attempt to salvage her Brexit deal and her premiership after a chaotic day in which she pulled Tuesday’s scheduled meaningful vote in the face of overwhelming opposition.
The prime minister will meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin on Tuesday afternoon to seek “further assurances” to ensure that the Northern Irish backstop would never come into force, although No 10 warned a rapid breakthrough was unlikely.
Downing Street said the vote could be delayed until January, reducing the time available to pass the necessary legislation to complete the UK’s departure – leading to growing concerns that a no-deal Brexit would result.
With more than 100 Conservative MPs lining up to vote against the Brexit deal, May made the humiliating admission to the Commons that “if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin”.
The prime minister now hopes to secure an exchange of letters or side-declarations pledging that the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, which could keep the UK in an indefinite customs union, would be temporary and unlikely to come into force. However, Downing Street admitted that the document may not be legally binding, meaning it was not clear they would satisfy sceptical MPs, amid intense pressure from rebel Tories and the Democratic Unionist party to ditch the backstop.
Labour indicated it would table a vote of no confidence if May were to fail in her emergency negotiations, saying that if she returned without significant changes “she will have decisively and unquestionably lost the confidence of parliament”.
Hard Brexiters questioned what May could achieve. Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was a “rotten and humiliating day” for the government, having earlier accused May of failing to govern because she did not “have the gumption” to put her deal before MPs to approve.
Cabinet sources also voiced concern about May’s strategy, having cancelled the vote – which some had wanted to take place – without the EU being signed up to anything yet. “There doesn’t seem to be any sort of plan,” one said.
In a dramatic moment at the close of Tuesday’s Commons debate, as the government formally deferred the deal vote, the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle marched forward to grab the mace in protest and held it aloft. The ceremonial object represents the Queen’s authority in parliament – without it parliament cannot meet or pass laws.
Tory MPs shouted “Disgrace”. Russell-Moyle appeared unsure of his next step and handed the mace back to Commons officials, as Bercow demanded he put it back down. The MP was suspended for the rest of the sitting – only a few minutes.
Labour MPs had earlier won an emergency debate on the vote’s cancellations, set to be heard on Wednesday, and backed by the Tory MPs Peter Bone and Sarah Wollaston.
As well as meeting Merkel May will fly out to meet Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, in the Hague, on Tuesday morning and is expected to meet Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in Brussels.
Her aim is to soften up sympathetic EU leaders before the European summit on Thursday and Friday. Significantly, however, there were no plans for May to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is battling a wave of civil unrest in his own country and who recently demanded that the UK give special access to EU fishing trawlers in order to secure a future free trade deal.
Tusk said he would allow May to discuss Brexit at the end of the week, but made clear that there were limits to what the EU was willing to do.
The pound fell to its lowest level in two years amid fears that a no-deal Brexit was more likely, while the CBI said the delay to the deal was a blow for business and that the UK “risks sliding towards a national crisis”.
There is no formal deadline for holding the meaningful vote before the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March next year but the government needs to leave enough time to pass the relevant legislation that will give effect to the 585-page withdrawal agreement that the UK has drawn up with the EU.
MPs raised concern that May could never return to the Commons to seek approval from parliament, although Downing Street said that the five-day Brexit debate – halted after three days – would be resumed when the prime minister was ready. No 10 added that enough time would be left to pass the withdrawal bill legislation, although there would be less than three months left.
The day had begun amid intense speculation about the meaningful vote given the scale of parliamentary opposition, but with ministers insisting that it would take place on Tuesday evening as planned.
Michael Gove was asked on the BBC’s Today programme shortly after 8am if the vote was “definitely, 100%” going to happen, Gove replied: “Yes.” Pressed on the point, he said: “The vote is going ahead.”
A Downing Street spokesman told reporters shortly after 11am that the vote would take place as scheduled, only for the news that it had been pulled to leak within minutes of a cabinet teleconference beginning at 11.30. Despite the leaks, No 10 would only say that May would make a statement to MPs at 3.30pm, and refused to publicly confirm what everybody knew in Westminster until the prime minister got on her feet.
May began her address to MPs by saying that during the debate she had “listened very carefully to what has been said in this chamber and out of it by members of all sides”, prompting laughter.
Jeremy Corbyn asked May to clarify if she was seeking actual changes to the withdrawal agreement with the EU, or “mere reassurances” about change. The Labour leader added: “Bringing back the same botched deal, either next week or in January – and can she be clear on the timing? – will not change its fundamental flaws and deeply held objections right across this house, which go far wider than the backstop alone.”
Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, who spoke to May on Sunday, said such a clarification of the EU’s intentions would be possible, but pointed to the lack of substance to such an offer.
“I have no difficulty with statements that clarify what’s in the withdrawal agreement [like Gibraltar], but no statement of clarification can contradict what’s in it,” Varadkar said.
A backstop is deemed necessary to avoid a hard border in Ireland if the UK and the EU cannot agree a free trade agreement by the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020. May has proposed a UK-wide backstop that would result in the whole country remaining in a customs union with the EU, while, additionally, Northern Ireland would remain in some aspects of the single market.