Downing Street admitted on Monday that Brexit talks in Brussels were deadlocked, leaving Theresa May facing a heavy defeat if she presents her largely unchanged deal to MPs for parliamentary approval on Tuesday.
The UK prime minister spoke to Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, on Sunday night but made no headway in her efforts to amend the treaty to ensure that Britain could not be “trapped” indefinitely in a customs union.
Downing Street insisted that the House of Commons’ apparently doomed “meaningful vote” on Mrs May’s deal would take place on Tuesday and that Mrs May had not given up all hope of last-minute progress in talks in Brussels.
“Talks are ongoing and we continue to focus on making progress so we can win parliament’s support for the deal,” Mrs May’s spokesman said. However, the idea of an eleventh-hour breakthrough was flatly discounted in Brussels.
Margaritis Schinas, European Commission spokesman, said on Monday that it was now up to Westminster whether or not to endorse the Brexit deal. He added that no further meetings between Mr Juncker and Mrs May were scheduled, although both sides would “remain in close contact this week”.
Mr Schinas said: “We remain open and willing to meet with UK negotiators at any time. We are committed to ratifying this deal before the 29th of March [when Britain is scheduled to leave the EU]. It is now for the House of Commons to take the decisions.”
Stephen Barclay, the UK’s Brexit secretary, was expected to make a statement to MPs on Monday afternoon to set out how the government intended to proceed in the face of the stalemate in Brussels and Westminster.
Mrs May is considering whether to give MPs a “conditional” vote on Monday on the deal that she would like to agree in Brussels — rather than the one on the table — although such a move would be fraught with danger.
There would be a risk that MPs would reject what one minister described as the “fantasy deal”, while one EU diplomat said: “If they vote for something which we cannot accept, then it is a vote for a no-deal exit.”
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, was scathing of the idea. “It’s far too late for the UK to tell us what they want,” he said. “The withdrawal agreement requires a compromise and this withdrawal agreement is already a compromise.”
He added: “I think if there is going to be an extension [to delay the date of Brexit past March 29], it has to be an extension with a purpose. Nobody across the EU wants to see a rolling cliff-edge where tough decisions just get put off until the end of April and then to the end of May and then maybe until the end of July.”
Mrs May had been ready to travel to Brussels on Monday to meet Mr Juncker to finalise changes to the deal; instead she spent the morning in Downing Street holding crisis talks with advisers and cabinet colleagues.
The uncertainty pushed the pound down to a three-week low, falling as much as 0.5 per cent to $1.2947.
UK officials say that draft legal changes on the table after a weekend of negotiations in Brussels were nowhere near strong enough to take back to the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Geoffrey Cox, UK attorney-general, made it clear that recent proposals would not allow him to change his legal advice that the Irish backstop contained in the exit treaty — which would force the UK into a temporary customs union as a last resort to prevent a hard border with Ireland — could “endure indefinitely”.
Mrs May lost the last “meaningful vote” on her deal by 230 votes in January and the substance has changed little since then, apart from a promise to MPs that Britain would uphold existing EU labour laws.
Mrs May has faced mounting pressure to quit as Conservative Eurosceptic rebels claimed she might have to sacrifice her premiership to win them over ahead of the Brexit vote this week.
Several cabinet ministers have said Mrs May should announce her plans to resign to win the support of Tory Brexiters, who believe that a change in Number 10 would signal a more robust approach to talks on a future UK-EU trade deal.
Nicky Morgan, former education secretary, said that if Mrs May lost the latest vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday her time would be up. “I think it would be very difficult for the prime minister to stay in office very much longer,” she told the BBC.