Theresa May faces a likely third House of Commons defeat over her Brexit deal on Friday as the DUP and hardline Brexiteers joined Labour and other opposition parties in promising to vote against the withdrawal agreement.
The government's decision to decouple the withdrawal agreement from the non-binding political declaration, which deals with the EU-UK future relationship, persuaded speaker John Bercow to allow the vote to go ahead.
But Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said that presenting the withdrawal agreement, which covers citizens' rights, the £39 billion exit bill and the Northern Ireland backstop, without the political declaration meant MPs would not know what they were voting for.
“Following the prime minister’s commitment yesterday to resign before the next phase of negotiations begin, it’s even more of a blindfold Brexit because we now know that the outcome of our future relationship with the EU is not going to be determined by her.
"My biggest fear is that unless parliament takes a stand now the outcome of the negotiations is going to be determined by the outcome of next Tory leadership contest. It could be a Boris Johnson Brexit, a Jacob Rees-Mogg Brexit or a Michael Gove Brexit."
Mr Johnson said on Wednesday that he would now support the prime minister's Brexit deal, and Mr Rees-Mogg said he would do so if the DUP did not oppose it. However, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, a leading Brexiteer contender to succeed Mrs May, said on Thursday that the government should seek to reopen the withdrawal agreement – something the EU has ruled out.
Exchange of letters
“One thing I would like to see is I think go back to the EU again, keep the arm of friendship open, explain that there is still time for an exchange of letters providing a legally-binding exit from the backstop,” he said.
“If they still don’t move I think we should have sensible conversations over the two weeks we have got left around the suite of no-deal arrangements that can be made to mitigate any of the potential damage on either side.”
British legislation requires parliament to approve both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration before it leaves the EU. But leader of the house Andrea Leadsom pointed to the European Council's decision last week to extend Britain's EU membership until May 22nd if MPs approved the withdrawal agreement alone by March 29th.
“It’s crucial, therefore, that we make every effort to give effect to the council’s decision and tomorrow’s motion gives parliament the opportunity to secure that extension,” she said.
"I think we can all agree that we don't want to be in the situation of asking for another extension, and facing the potential requirement of participating in European Parliament elections."
Labour's Hilary Benn asked if approving the withdrawal agreement would mean that Britain could not secure an article 50 extension beyond May 22nd, and attorney general Geoffrey Cox said he would answer the question on Friday.
Next Monday MPs will engage in the second round of “indicative votes” aimed at finding a majority for an alternative to Mrs May’s Brexit deal. None of the eight options debated on Wednesday secured a majority, but proposals for a customs union and for a second referendum came closest.