Theresa May has urged Conservative MPs to support a demand for the controversial backstop in her Brexit deal to be replaced with “alternative arrangements”.
The prime minister has asked Tory MPs to back the position during a series of Brexit votes in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
As she seeks to put pressure on the EU over altering the backstop, Mrs May will whip her party’s MPs to support the proposal being spearheaded by senior backbencher Sir Graham Brady.
Brussels has so far consistently ruled out reopening talks over the terms of the UK’s exit deal.
The prime minister revealed her move in an emergency meeting of Conservative MPs in parliament on Monday night.
The backstop is an insurance policy to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland if such a scenario isn’t averted in a future EU-UK trade relationship.
It is part of the deal Mrs May negotiated with Brussels last year.
But the backstop is deeply unpopular with a significant number of MPs who fear it will leave the UK following EU rules for an indefinite period, as well as splitting Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The opposition to the backstop helped contribute to the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejecting the prime minister’s EU agreement earlier this month.
Following that defeat, Mrs May will set out her next steps on Brexit in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Various factions of MPs will use this opportunity to alter the course of Brexit by tabling amendments to what the prime minister presents.
One of those, tabled by Sir Graham, calls for MPs to support Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement but only if the backstop arrangement is “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.
Fellow Tory Brexiteers have withdrawn their own similar amendments, including ones calling for the removal or time-limiting of the backstop, in order to clear space for Sir Graham’s to pass.
It has been suggested a show of support by MPs for Sir Graham’s proposal could boost Mrs May’s negotiating clout with Brussels, in the face of the EU’s stance that no other Brexit deal is possible.
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow will decide which of the tabled amendments will be debated and put to a vote on Tuesday.
Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis told Sky News: “The withdrawal agreement showed what parliament doesn’t like. We’ve got to get very clear with the EU around what parliament will support.
“That vote tomorrow does give parliament an opportunity to do just that.”
He added Sir Graham’s amendment “gives the prime minister the chance to have the backing… that parliament will support a deal to leave the EU, as we promised we would do, if the backstop situation is dealt with”.
Mr Lewis described this as a “very strong, powerful message for the prime minister to take out to Europe”.
However, the prime minister’s hopes of securing a show of support from MPs suffered a blow even before she made her pitch to Conservative MPs.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the European Research Group (ERG) of eurosceptic Conservative MPs, said there was “no move to support” Sir Graham’s amendment among his fellow Brexiteers, despite their opposition to the backstop.
He said: “The Graham Brady amendment gives conditional approval, so that is an issue.
“It doesn’t say what it [the backstop] would be replaced with.
“And Graham has said he could live with a protocol rather than changes to the [withdrawal agreement] text, whereas from our point of view there needs to be changes to the text.”
Despite the ERG not rallying behind his amendment, Sir Graham was bullish about his chances of attracting support from across the House of Commons.
He told Sky News: “My aim is to try and construct a coalition here that brings in most, if not all, Conservative MPs, brings the DUP back to support this, and also brings on some of the more moderate Labour MPs who recognise that we ought to be implementing the result of the referendum.
“What I’ve done is table this amendment which seeks to take away the single biggest impediment that stopped Conservative colleagues from supporting the withdrawal agreement.”
During Monday night’s meeting, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson – a critic of the prime minister’s Brexit deal – is said to have asked Mrs May’s what changes she would be looking for from the EU.
“We won’t know unless you support us – get behind us and find out,” Mrs May is said to have replied, to cheers from MPs.
(c) Sky News 2019: PM urges Conservative MPs to back demand to replace Brexit backstop