Theresa May could be forced to hold a second EU referendum under a dramatic last-minute move to allow MPs to vote on the issue next week.
Just four days before the most important parliamentary showdown in decades, a brand new Commons amendment has been tabled to allow a so-called “people’s vote” to take place.
The two options on the ballot paper would mean the public would get to choose either the PM’s Brexit plan, or remaining in the European Union.
The amendment, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, exposes divisions in the People’s Vote campaign over when would be the best time to push their plan for a second referendum.
Many Labour MPs and Tory Remainers had agreed to wait until after May’s own plans were heavily defeated in the vote next Tuesday.
Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer have been determined to hold back from giving Labour support to such a move only after all other possibilities have been explored, including a possible confidence vote in the PM.
But with growing numbers of supporters in all parties keen on a fresh public vote on the deal, the new amendment aims to force the issue onto the parliamentary agenda, while killing off a no-deal exit as an option.
The new amendment is even being seen as helpful by some senior government ministers because it offers an extra way of getting May’s plan passed by MPs.
Crucially, it adopts the prime minister’s proposal and just makes it conditional on a second referendum. Unlike other amendments, it does not reject May’s deal.
It states: “At end, add ‘and instructs the government to take all necessary steps to prepare for a People’s Vote in which the public may give their informed consent on leaving the EU or retaining the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union’.”
It is unclear whether the speaker of the Commons will select the amendment, but he will be under pressure to do so.
A cross-party group of MPs with medical backgrounds – Tories Sarah Wollaston and Philip Lee, Labour’s Paul Williams and the SNP’s Philippa Whitford – had hoped to table an almost identical “doctors’ amendment” after May’s plan was defeated.
A spokesman for the People’s Vote campaign told HuffPost on Friday: “The amendment by the Liberal Democrats is deeply unhelpful at this stage and does not have cross-party support or the backing of the People’s Vote campaign.
“The focus and strategy of our campaign has always been first to get the government’s Brexit deal rejected by Parliament on Tuesday and then pave the way for a People’s Vote when it has maximum support in the House of Commons.
“This amendment is more about political point scoring than following a strategy and it would be deeply unfair for the Liberal Democrats to use this amendment against other supporters of the People’s Vote campaign, who are united behind efforts to get the deal rejected and then secure the British public the final say they deserve.”
And a spokesperson for the pro-EU Best For Britain campaign said the group would be urging the Lib Dems to withdraw the amendment and bide their time.
“We have spoken to the Liberal Democrats this morning about their amendment. We are grateful to them for their role as early pioneers of a people’s vote and their record of working cross-party to advance this aim,” they added.
“We hope they will continue to do this in these final, vital weeks and withdraw their amendment.”
The MPs argue that just as patients need to give “informed consent” before any operation, so too will the British public need to give their final approval to the PM’s proposals, even though a majority have already voted to Leave the EU in principle.
May has long insisted publicly and privately that a second referendum risks betraying the verdict of the 2016 referendum.
But growing numbers of both Brexiteer and Remainer ministers believe that it could be the only way to rescue the PM’s plans.
Brexiteers believe it could help them deliver an even bigger Leave vote, letting them campaign on May’s central promise to end freedom of movement of EU migrants.
Remainers think it will offer a final chance to stay in the EU, and believe that polls have shown a decisive shift towards Remain in the past two years as the public have grasped the economic consequences of exit.
BuzzFeed News has reported that the PM’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell and her communications chief Robbie Gibb have been discussing the idea of a second referendum in recent days as a possible last resort for resolving the current parliamentary deadlock.
One senior minister has told colleagues that it would be helpful to have the People’s Vote on the Order Paper before MPs on Tuesday, to give the PM an extra option.
However, some MPs suspect that the late amendment is designed to put pressure on both Wollaston, whose Totnes constituency is targeted by the Lib Dems, and on Corbyn, whose party members are backing a new referendum in huge numbers.
Some ministers believe that a second referendum will more easily win EU support than any attempt to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement in favour of a Norway-plus option for Brexit.
The People’s Vote campaign on Friday published a new pamphlet, written by former Foreign Secretary David Miliband and former minister Jo Johnson, on ‘Why Norway Plus Won’t Work’. They claimed it would take years to agree and give the UK less control over trade rules and migration.