Theresa May speaks during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Images
Rowena Mason and Rajeev Syal
Thu 28 Mar 2019 21.24 GMT, The Guardian
Prime minister will put only withdrawal agreement to a vote on Friday – but it remains unlikely to pass
Theresa May will put only half of her Brexit deal to a vote on Friday, in a final desperate attempt to secure MPs’ support as senior cabinet ministers made clear she must leave No 10 very soon, whatever happens.
On the day Britain was originally meant to leave the EU – something May had promised would happen more than 100 times – the prime minister will put only the withdrawal agreement to a vote, having promised to step aside if the MPs give her their approval.
No 10 is hoping that some Labour MPs could back the withdrawal agreement severing the UK’s membership of the EU, without the political declaration governing Britain’s future relationship with Brussels.
However, it remains extremely unlikely to pass as Labour said it would never vote for a “blindfold Brexit”, while around 30 Eurosceptic Tories and the 10 Democratic Unionist MPs are also holding out against it.
MPs will be warned that failure to back the withdrawal agreement this time will lead to a long extension that requires participation in European parliament elections or crashing out without a deal on 12 April.
MPs who support a soft Brexit are meanwhile working on a new round of votes on the alternatives on Monday, including a compromise that could combine the support of those MPs who voted for a customs union, for Labour’s Brexit plan and for the Norway-style option dubbed “common market 2.0”.
With European leaders sceptical that such efforts will be successful, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier told diplomats on Thursday that a no deal was now “the most plausible outcome” and ordered work to begin on wargaming the bloc’s response.
No 10 insists that it can still make progress, arguing that passing the withdrawal agreement alone will allow the UK to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit on 12 April and secure another five weeks to renegotiate the political declaration in order win support for the deal in its entirety.
This is because the EU has said the UK will have to leave on 12 April if no deal is passed, but would grant an extension to 22 May if the withdrawal agreement goes through.
But Labour has repeatedly said it is opposed to this plan. After Jeremy Corbyn held a 20-minute call with the prime minister, a spokesperson said: “Jeremy made clear Labour will not agree a blindfold Brexit to force through Theresa May’s damaging deal, which would leave the next Tory party leader free to rip up essential rights and protections and undermine jobs and living standards.”
With the deal looking all but dead without the support of the DUP, there are fears among some ministers and MPs that May could try to cling on and put her deal to the country in a general election if it does not win support. They worry that a futile version of the withdrawal deal is being put to MPs in order for the Conservatives to say at an election that Labour refused to pass even the most basic part of the agreement to leave the EU.
MPs believe some of May’s advisers are pushing the option of an election, but cabinet sources have told the Guardian this option would not be acceptable and that the prime minister’s position was the same whether or not she gets her deal through.
One cabinet minister told the Guardian: “Now the prime minister has said she is going, there is no point in hanging around indefinitely having said that.” The minister also poured cold water on claims that there will be a general election, pointing to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
“That is pre-2010 speak. It is not in the PM’s gift to decide that there is a general election. It is in parliament’s gift. I doubt there is a majority in parliament for holding a general election.”