Theresa May is on course for another historic defeat of her Brexit deal after the DUP and Tory Brexiteers said last-minute changes negotiated with the EU are not enough to secure their support.
A group of legally trained MPs appointed by the European Research Group (ERG) and the Northern Irish DUP said the EU concessions gave only “faint and remote” prospects of Britain being able to pull out of the controversial Irish backstop.
It came after Attorney General Geoffrey Cox separately said the changes secured in Strasbourg “reduce the risk” of the UK getting trapped in the arrangement to maintain an invisible Irish border by the EU, but fails to eliminate it entirely.
Brexiteers and the DUP have been opposed to the backstop as they fear it will lock the UK into a customs union with the EU, meaning the UK would be unable to strike free trade deals around the world, and could see Northern Ireland treated differently to the rest of the country.
Tory Brexiteer Sir William Cash, a member of the ERG’s “star chamber” and an arch Brexiteer, said: “In the light of our own legal analysis and others we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today.”
Meanwhile a DUP MP told HuffPost UK that the deal remained “unpalatable” and Cox’s legal advice “killed it dead”.
The star chamber’s decision is likely to persuade scores of ERG Tories and the DUP’s 10 MPs to oppose the deal, leaving May facing a second defeat on her deal, following the record 230-vote majority loss in January.
DUP Westminster leader told Cox in the Commons: “We know already from the Irish government and others what they see as the ultimate destination for Northern Ireland – the backstop is the bottom line.
“From what the attorney general is saying today, provided there is no bad faith, the fact is that Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom could be trapped if it’s a question that the EU does not agree with the United Kingdom to a superseding agreement.”
The star chamber ruled that May has failed to fulfil its commitment to deliver “legally binding changes” to the withdrawal agreement or backstop.
May also failed to secure an exit mechanism from the backstop, and it was “not credible” to say that “bad faith” by the EU in trade negotiations could give the UK a legal route out of the insurance policy within a reasonable amount of time.
In the Commons, high-profile ERG member and former Brexit minister Steve Baker said: “Isn’t it the case that if we negotiate under this agreement we will either find ourselves trapped indefinitely in the backstop because they are acting in good faith, or we will have to agree a customs union, contrary to our manifesto?”
Responding, Eloise Todd of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign said: “Number 10 need to be sent on an expectation management course because they’ve royally flopped here.
“First the long-awaited silver bullet of Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice ended up shooting them in the foot, and now the faction Theresa May has been so desperate to woo has pulled the rug out from underneath her.
“MPs will tonight vote down this terrible deal once again. It is dead.
“The UK must now work to extend Article 50 and make provisions for the only credible route out of this Brexit mess – a public vote.”