Brexit: May weighs up offering backstop vote to MPs

No changes sought to withdrawal agreement, Downing Street stresses

British prime minister Theresa May: met Conservative backbenchers in her office to listen to their concerns about the backstop. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Theresa May is considering offering a formal guarantee to MPs that they will be given a vote before Britain enters the Northern Ireland backstop in an attempt to win support for her Brexit deal next week. But Downing Street stressed on Wednesday that the prime minister will not seek any change to the withdrawal agreement, which does not allow Britain to leave the backstop unilaterally.

Mrs May met Conservative backbenchers in her office at the House of Commons on Wednesday after she promised to listen to their concerns about the backstop. The Brexit deal allows Britain to choose by July 2020 whether to extend the transition period for a year or two from December 2020. After such an extension, the backstop would automatically come into effect if no other solution had been found to keep the Border open.

International treaty

Among the options under discussion at Westminster is amending the motion on the Brexit deal to include a “parliamentary lock” that would assert that MPs could choose to reject triggering the backstop. This would be consistent with the British constitutional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty but it would mean breaching an international treaty, with all the consequences that entails.

Steve Baker, a leading Conservative Brexiteer, said the idea was falling flat among Eurosceptics. "Who is going to fall for that? The treaty would be binding," he said.


Brexiteers described as devastating the attorney general's legal advice on the Brexit deal, which the government published on Wednesday after MPs voted that it was in contempt of parliament. DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds pointed to its assertion that under the backstop, Northern Ireland would have to treat Great Britain as a "third country" for goods.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said the legal advice published on Wednesday was consistent with everything the government had said publicly about what the backstop meant for Northern Ireland.

‘Avoid a hard border’

“Northern Ireland would only be aligned on a small subset of goods regulations which are necessary to avoid a hard border, not all single market rules like free movement and services regulations. Also the prime minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster [David Lidington] have said that if the backstop were to come into effect for a short period, the government would look at whether the rest of the UK should remain aligned with Northern Ireland,” he said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg told his European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative Brexiteers that Mr Dodds had promised him that the DUP would support the government in a confidence vote if Mrs May's deal is defeated next week.

Mr Rees-Mogg suggested that the DUP's support could be in doubt if the prime minister's deal was approved but other DUP sources told The Irish Times that the party is not considering voting against the government in a confidence motion regardless of the outcome of next week's vote.

International development secretary Liam Fox warned on Wednesday that if the prime minister's Brexit deal is rejected next week, MPs could seek to keep Britain inside the EU.

“I think there is a real danger, given the House of Commons which has a Remain majority, may attempt to steal Brexit from the British people, which I think would be a democratic affront,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times