History will take “a dim view” of Theresa May’s Cabinet if it presses ahead with a no-deal Brexit if the Prime Minister’s EU Withdrawal Agreement is voted down by MPs next week, a senior minister has warned.
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd told fellow ministers that the Government needed to reach out to find what will secure a majority in the House of Commons.
Her warning came as Mrs May told the first meeting of Cabinet since the Christmas break that she continues to seek assurances from the EU to address MPs’ concerns over issues like the proposed “backstop”.
Meanwhile, Business Secretary Greg Clark told the House of Commons that a no-deal Brexit “should not be contemplated”.
Mrs May will make a final pitch for MPs to back her agreement moments before they vote.
Downing Street confirmed that the so-called “meaningful vote” is scheduled to take place on Tuesday January 15, with the Prime Minister wrapping up five days of debate kicked off on January 9 by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
Without some movement from Brussels, Mrs May is expected to lose the division, which was postponed in December when it became clear that the Government would be defeated.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar said the EU was “happy to give” the UK fresh assurances, telling the Irish Times: “We don’t want to trap the UK into anything.”
But it remains doubtful that progress will be made in this area before debate commences on Wednesday, with the PM’s official spokesman saying only that it was hoped to inform MPs of any EU assurances “before the vote”.
Number 10 denied a report that the Government was talking to Brussels about extending Article 50 to buy more time by delaying Britain’s departure from the EU.
“We will not be extending Article 50,” said Mrs May’s official spokesman, who confirmed that it remained the PM’s position that the UK will leave the EU on March 29.
There was little sign that opposition to Mrs May’s deal among Tory Brexiteers had softened over the Christmas break, with several who attended a drinks reception at Number 10 on Monday evening saying they would vote against the plan.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove told Cabinet that those considering rejecting Mrs May’s agreement in the hope of securing a better deal were like swingers in their mid-50s waiting for film star Scarlett Johansson to turn up on a date.
Ms Rudd added “or Pierce Brosnan”, only for Justice Secretary David Gauke to quip that it was like “waiting for Scarlett Johansson on a unicorn”.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, who backed Remain in the 2016 referendum, told fellow ministers: “History will take a dim view of a Cabinet that presses ahead with no deal. We have to face the world as we find it, not as we wish it to be, and we have to deal with the facts as we find them.”
As a former home secretary, she warned that the UK would be “less safe as a country” under a no-deal Brexit.
And she said: “More than ever we need to find the centre, reach across the House and find a majority for what will be agreed. Anything will need legislation.
“I want us to proceed with Brexit, I want to find the will of the House.”
Speaking during a visit to Mali, Mr Varadkar said there was currently “close contact between the UK and EU institutions on whether a further set of written guarantees, explanations and assurances could make a difference”.
He added: “Bear in mind, a lot of the opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop might be based on suppositions and misunderstandings about our intent as a European Union.
“We don’t want to trap the UK into anything – we want to get on to the talks about the future relationship right away. I think it’s those kind of assurances we are happy to give.”
The concept of the backstop – an agreement governing the customs status of the Ireland/Northern Ireland border in the event that Britain and the EU cannot agree a long-term relationship by the end of 2021 – has been the main sticking point preventing Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement from being passed by Parliament.
It is opposed by a hardline group of MPs from her own Tory Party, as well as their Democratic Unionist Party allies.
French Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau said the Withdrawal Agreement would not be renegotiated, but insisted that the EU had made clear that the backstop was a “last-resort” solution.
Pressed on whether there would be new assurances as she arrived for an EU summit in Brussels, Ms Loiseau said: “These are political assurances. But there is nothing more that we can do.
“The Withdrawal Agreement is indeed a good agreement, both for the UK and for the European Union. We should stick to it.”
Leave-backing former Brexit secretary David Davis dismissed the Taoiseach’s comments, saying that the EU would come back to the table to renegotiate the Brexit deal if the UK “holds fast” as the deadline for leaving approaches.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the EU was “testing the mettle of the British Government”.
He continued: “The simple truth is that they will hold fast to their line – this is the traditional approach of the European Commission, the European Union – they will hold fast to their line to the last possible minute and then, if we hold fast to our line, then they will actually come back and renegotiate.”
He added that if that occurred we should demand legal assurances and “some sort of undertaking on a free trade deal”, saying: “This will get very, very sticky, very close to the end, that is what will happen.
“And we need to work out what is negotiable and what isn’t.”
But Mr Barclay, who took on the Brexit role after the resignation of Mr Davis’s successor, Dominic Raab, said the comment “reflects what PM has been saying for some time – that the deal she has negotiated is in the interests of both the EU and the UK”.
He went on to deny reports that Article 50 could be extended, saying it would “generate some very practical issues”.
Downing Street played down the likely impact of an amendment to the Finance Bill tabled by opponents of a no-deal Brexit and due to be debated in the Commons on Tuesday.
The cross-party amendment, tabled by former Cabinet ministers Yvette Cooper and Nicky Morgan and backed by Labour, would would restrict the Government’s freedom to make Brexit-related tax changes without parliamentary safeguards.
But Mrs May’s spokesman said that, while “not desirable”, the impact of the initiative on no-deal preparations would be “inconvenience, rather than anything more significant”.
The move would not prevent the Government from collecting tax, but would place restrictions on its ability to make minor changes to tax legislation – such as replacing “EEA” with “UK” – following Brexit, the spokesman said.