Theresa May’s pact with the DUP is facing a major Tory rebellion over moves to stop women from Northern Ireland receiving free abortion services in Britain.
A Commons showdown is set to take place on Thursday afternoon after Speaker John Bercow decided MPs could vote on a cross-party amendment to the Queen’s Speech to improve abortion access.
HuffPost UK understands that the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) 10 MPs are expected to side with the Tory government, which will also try to whip its backbenchers into opposing the move.
But Labour MP Stella Creasy’s amendment has attracted up to 40 Tory rebels, she told HuffPost UK, raising the prospect of a May’s first Commons defeat since she became Prime Minister.
In a last-ditch attempt to buy off the rebellion, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom hinted at a concession, revealing that the Department of Health and Department for Equalities were “discussing and looking very closely at the issue today”.
Abortion is currently illegal in almost all circumstances in Northern Ireland and women who travel from the province to Britain are not entitled to receive the service free of charge via the NHS, despite being UK taxpayers.
Women are charged about £900 if they travel to England to have an abortion.
The amendment calls on the Government to ensure that “all UK citizens including those from Northern Ireland may access medical services including abortion procedures in England if they so wish without charge”.
HuffPost UK understands that both the Tory and DUP MPs will be whipped to vote against the amendment - under the terms of the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement signed by the two parties this week.
Some within the DUP believe that the motion is irrelevant as it has no legal force over how non-English residents can access abortion services in England.
The DUP sees the amendment as constitutionally incoherent at worst, and a glorified adjournment debate at best.
But Tory backbenchers upset with May’s deal with the Ulster party are mobilising to put on record their disquiet that its MPs can have any say over what happens outside the province.
Although some Labour MPs will not back Creasy, Government whips are nervous of a defeat when the Commons stages a series of votes on the Queen’s Speech. It is unclear how many Tories will defy their whips given the precarious nature of May’s minority government.
Creasy told HuffPost UK that the key issue for Tory rebels was not abortion itself, but the influence the DUP had on what was a matter of policy in England.
“Between thirty and forty Tory MPs have indicated to me how unhappy they are. This is not about what happens in Northern Ireland and does not interfere with the decisions of the Northern Ireland Assembly,” she said.
“It is about what happens when a woman from Northern Ireland turns up to an English hospital for an abortion and whether she is treated the same way as any other UK taxpayer.
“Tory MPs are also disgruntled at the idea that there should be a whip on what is usually a matter of conscience.”
The High Court ruled in 2016 that the current ban on free abortions breached women’s human rights under European law, but the Department of Health is appealing the ruling.
Hunt infuriated pro-choice MPs on Wednesday by suggesting there was a “consultation” on the current policy.
Leadsom underlined the Government’s position that the issue was about devolution rather than abortion itself.
“The question of women from Northern Ireland accessing abortions in England is not one of whether they should have that access, it’s a question of devolution and the fact that health is devolved to Northern Ireland and therefore it’s the question of who should pay for it,” she said.
“This is an incredibly sensitive and important issue, and to be very clear it’s my personal view that every woman should have the right to decide what happens to her own body. That is very clear.”
Creasy said that the case would inevitably end up before the European Court of Human Rights and that was why the express will of the UK Parliament mattered.
“I would be surprised if the European court decided not to take into account a vote in the British Parliament. It’s very clear, this is not about abortion in Northern Ireland, it’s about the rights of UK citizens to access the same health treatment.”
The sense of unease among Tories was underlined by former Chancellor George Osborne, who seized on the vote to claim the Government was “scrambling” to “buy off” the rebellion.
DUP MP Ian Paisley Jnr hinted on Wednesday that his party was not interested in matters which were for England’s NHS.
“I think it is important the House recognises this is not a matter for Belfast, this is a matter for NHS England,” he told Creasy in an intervention.
Campaigners were also encouraged when Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the Commons “We are absolutely committed to healthcare for women, - and that includes access to terminations.”
More than 50 MPs from all parties have signed the Creasy amendment.
Three Tory MPs and former ministers - Nicky Morgan, Dan Poulter and Sir Peter Bottomley - have also signed a letter urging Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to end current NHS charges.