May claims she can get EU to guarantee backstop will be temporary

UK government has lost control and is in disarray, says Corbyn as key vote cancelled

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: said to prime minister Theresa May there was no point bringing back the same deal with cosmetic changes. Photograph:  Parbul/PA

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: said to prime minister Theresa May there was no point bringing back the same deal with cosmetic changes. Photograph: Parbul/PA


Theresa May has told MPs she is confident she can win the reassurances they need from the European Union that the Northern Ireland backstop will not be permanent. But she cautioned that there could be no withdrawal agreement with the EU that did not include a backstop to guarantee that there would be no hard border.

Announcing she was postponing a vote on her Brexit deal, the British prime minister acknowledged she had been facing a heavy defeat. But as she promised to return to Brussels for further negotiations before resuming the House of Commons debate on her deal, she said the backstop was the product of some inescapable facts. 

“The fact that Northern Ireland shares a land border with another sovereign state. The fact that the hard-won peace that has been built in Northern Ireland over the last two decades has been built around a seamless Border. And the fact that Brexit will create a wholly new situation: on March 30th, the Northern Ireland/Ireland Border will for the first time become the external frontier of the European Union’s single market and customs union,” she said.

Rhetoric vs solutions

“The challenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and workable solutions. Businesses operate across that border. People live their lives crossing and recrossing it every day. I have been there and spoken to some of those people. They do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decision we have taken. They do not want a return to a hard border. And if this house cares about preserving our union, it must listen to those people, because our union will only endure with their consent.”

Mrs May announced the postponement of the vote following a conference call with her cabinet as the number of Conservative MPs promising to vote against the deal continued to rise. The prime minister told MPs that although her deal could not yet command a majority in the House of Commons, no other plan could do so either.

She said those who advocated options such as a second referendum, a “Norway-plus” model or a no-deal Brexit should be honest about the implications of their choice.

Second referendum

“So if you want a second referendum to overturn the result of the first, be honest that this risks dividing the country again, when as a house we should be striving to bring it back together. If you want to remain part of the single market and the customs union, be open that this would require free movement, rule-taking across the economy, and ongoing financial contributions – none of which are in my view compatible with the result of the referendum. If you want to leave without a deal, be upfront that, in the short term, this would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden,” she said.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the government had lost control of events and was in complete disarray and he told the prime minister there was no point in bringing back the same deal with cosmetic changes. DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that the prime minister’s statement was not credible and the government had found itself in an impossible position.

“Does she not get by now that the withdrawal agreement legally binding text is unacceptable to this house? She cannot pretend and go on defending the deal when she knows that had the vote been taken tomorrow [Tuesday], the deal would have been overwhelmingly defeated. Please, prime minister, really do start to listen and come back with changes to the withdrawal agreement, or it will be voted down,” he said.