Theresa May has tried to defuse a fresh Tory leadership plot against her by pledging a new ‘summer’ deadline to get Brexit delivered.
In a bid to calm her fractious backbenchers and ministers, the prime minister will bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the first week of June.
After the Cabinet decided on Tuesday to continue the search for a compromise in talks with Labour, May met Jeremy Corbyn for face-to-face talks in her Commons office to warn him he had just three weeks to finally agree a compromise deal.
But in a sign of hardening attitudes against the Labour talks, May and her ministers also agreed that it was “imperative” that MPs passed the necessary legislation by the time parliament’s recess starts in late July.
A No.10 spokesman said: “This evening the Prime Minister met the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons to make clear our determination to bring the talks to a conclusion and deliver on the referendum result to leave the EU.
“We will therefore be bringing forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the week beginning June 3.”
In response, Corbyn rejected any idea of Labour supporting the bill without its demands being met.
Amid fears of a drubbing by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in next week’s European elections, the executive of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs will meet May on Thursday to demand more ‘clarity’ on her exit from No.10
Several senior backbenchers are threatening to change the party’s leadership rules to allow a fresh vote of confidence to oust the PM from office - unless May proves she is injecting momentum into getting Brexit delivered.
Under one plan, just hours before May meets the 1922 Committee, Commons leader Andrea Leadsom could announce that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be introduced to parliament as early as next week.
The bill will then be subject to a second reading vote after the European elections, once MPs have come back from an 11-day recess.
Following the talks, a spokesman for Corbyn said: “The Labour leader set out the shadow cabinet’s concerns about the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver on any compromise agreement.
“In particular he raised doubts over the credibility of government commitments, following statements by Conservative MPs and Cabinet Ministers seeking to replace the Prime Minister.
“Jeremy Corbyn made clear the need for further movement from the government, including on entrenchment of any commitments.”
Cabinet tensions surfaced during Tuesday’s two-hour discussion on the current state of talks with Labour, with several ministers questioning the compromises that were being contemplated.
However, May won their backing for her multi-layered plan to prove she was trying to inject some urgency into delivering Brexit.
Publication of the Brexit bill, new pressure on Corbyn to come to a joint agreement and the staging of a series of ‘definitive’ votes on Brexit alternatives are all in the mix, sources said.
While May is under pressure to impose a deadline on the Labour talks, Corbyn is also facing flak from his own MPs for the electoral damage inflicted by working with the Tories.
Labour’s shadow cabinet was briefed that the compromise package offered by the government includes a temporary customs arrangement to last to the next election and a workers’ rights bill introduced at the same time as the Withdrawal Agreement Bil.
But shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the big sticking point remained Labour’s fear that any agreement could be torn up by May’s successor as Tory leader.
“Our big problem now is, if we are going to march our troops in Parliament to the top of the hill to vote for a deal and then that’s overturned within weeks, I think that would be a cataclysmic act of bad faith,” he said.
At a Wall Street Journal CEO Council conference in London, McDonnell added that “deep in my heart I’m still a Remainer” and said he believed Corbyn was too.
The PM’s spokesman signalled that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill could be published with or without Labour’s support.
“I’ve spoken in the past about the need to secure a stable majority for the WAB. That’s obviously still important, at the same time I would emphasise sending a clear message to the public that parliament is getting on with delivering the result of the referendum,” he said.
“Ministers involved in the negotiations set out details of the compromises which the government was prepared to consider in order to secure an agreement which would allow the UK to leave the EU with a deal as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.
“Cabinet agreed to continue discussions with Labour to see what was possible. However, it was agreed that it is imperative to bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in time for it to receive royal assent by the time of the summer parliamentary recess.”
Under plans considered by ministers, the extra legal requirement to hold a fourth ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit could still go ahead either during the new bill’s passage or via a new clause inserted to the legislation.
Leadsom has been pushing a plan to split the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into different parts, with some sections omitting the controversial Northern Ireland ‘backstop’.
But the PM’s spokesman said: “Unless it is passed in its entirety, we won’t be able to exit. The only way to leave is to ratify all aspects of the withdrawal agreement.”
Earlier, former Cabinet minister John Whittingdale warned that the pressure for May to step down would intensify after the Euro elections.
“It would help if we had a fresh leader. Each week brings more problems for the Conservative party. It is very plain the local elections made it plain that the Conservative Party is going to be continuing to be continually going downhill until we get that leader in place,” he told the BBC.