Andrea Leadsom has hinted the vote on the Brexit deal might not happen until after March 21, as she told Tory MPs not to be “purist” about making changes to the Irish backstop.
The Commons leader suggested on Tuesday morning that Brexiteers should be happy with tweaks to the backstop that did not require reopening the withdrawal agreement.
Leadsom’s suggestion comes ahead of a planned speech from Theresa May in the Commons, where she will make a plea to “hold our nerve” as she attempts to secure changes in time for the March 29 exit day.
Eurosceptic Tories want the backstop to either be removed entirely, or have a legally binding end date. But the EU has flatly rejected calls for the agreement to be renegotiated.
The backstop is the insurance policy that would prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should the UK and EU fail to agree a trade deal.
Brexiteers worry if it is triggered it would indefinitely keep the UK too closely tied to EU rules.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, Leadsom said: “The point is to ensure that the UK cannot be held in a backstop permanently. How it’s achieved is not something to be purist about.”
The Brexiteer cabinet minister denied accusations the prime minister was running down the clock in an attempt to give MPs no option other than to back her deal or see the UK crash out of the EU with no deal at all.
But she admitted the so-called meaningful vote in the Commons on whether the deal would be accepted might not happen until after an EU summit on March 21 – just eight days before the UK is due to leave.
“The prime minister is seeking to bring back the meaningful vote just as soon as possible,” she said.
“So it is a negotiation. It’s not possible to predict the future. But the meaningful vote will come back to Parliament as soon as the issue around the backstop has been sorted out.”
Talks are continuing apace between the UK and EU, with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, meeting MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday.