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May in make-or-break bid to gain DUP support for her Brexit deal

The Guardian logo The Guardian 17/03/2019 Heather Stewart Political editor

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Theresa May will embark on a final desperate scramble to win the Democratic Unionist party’s backing for her Brexit deal on Monday, in the hope that it could unlock parliament’s support at the third time of asking.

With several prominent Brexiters, including former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, now willing to switch their vote and support the deal, government sources said they hoped DUP backing could create “a sense of momentum”.

But with negotiations ongoing, ministers insisted on Sunday there would not be a third meaningful vote this week, before a crucial summit in Brussels, unless May believes she can win it.

Theresa May wearing a blue jacket: Theresa May will this week seek DUP backing in a last ditch attempt to bolster support for her Brexit deal. © Reuters Theresa May will this week seek DUP backing in a last ditch attempt to bolster support for her Brexit deal. “We will only bring the deal back if we are confident that enough of our colleagues, and the DUP, are prepared to support it, so that we can get it through parliament. We’re not going to keep presenting it if we haven’t moved the dial,” said the chancellor, Philip Hammond.

He was among senior ministers who met with DUP leaders, including Nigel Dodds, on Friday.

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The DUP rejected the concessions won by the prime minister in Strasbourg last week, after the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, said they wouldn’t prevent the UK being held in the backstop permanently.

The chancellor said the main emphasis now was on reassuring the DUP that new barriers would not be allowed to develop between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, if the backstop was invoked.

“I regard it as crucially important that we do not allow differences to grow up between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and we’re looking for ways in which the government can reassure Northern Irish politicians about our clear intention to make sure that there are no such differences as we go forward, if the backstop had to come into force,” he said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes British Prime Minister Theresa May in Strasbourg, France March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/Pool © Thomson Reuters European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes British Prime Minister Theresa May in Strasbourg, France March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/Pool

Asked if extra funding for Northern Ireland could be involved, as it was in clinching the DUP’s support for May’s minority government two years ago, Hammond said: “We are coming up to a spending review, and we will have to look at all budgets, including devolved block-grant budgets, in that spending review: of course we will.”

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Hammond also insisted it was now “physically impossible” to leave the EU on time, on 29 March, because of the volume of legislation that must still be passed.

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EU leaders are set to discuss the question of delaying Brexit at their regular European council meeting on Thursday.

If May’s deal has by then been rubber-stamped by parliament, the government plans to request a short, technical delay of less than three months, to get the statute book ready.

But the government believes that if the deal has not yet been accepted by parliament, EU leaders are likely to demand a lengthy delay, so that an alternative can be found.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is seen outside Downing Street in London, Britain March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls © Thomson Reuters Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is seen outside Downing Street in London, Britain March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls Ministers have promised to commence a process of indicative votes next week, if the impasse has not been resolved by then.

The prime minister used an article in the Sunday Telegraph to warn MPs that if they failed to support her deal this week, “we will not leave the EU for many months, if ever”.

The deal was rejected by 149 votes last week – so May needs to convince 75 MPs to change their minds.

McVey, who resigned in opposition to May’s deal, and has voted against it twice, said she would “hold her nose” and support the prime minister’s deal, after a pair of votes in parliament last week that rejected a no-deal Brexit and called for a delay.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, left, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend a media conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Monday, March 11, 2019. Prime Minister Theresa May is making a last-ditch attempt to get concessions from EU counterparts on elements of the agreement they all reached late last year. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, left, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend a media conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Monday, March 11, 2019. Prime Minister Theresa May is making a last-ditch attempt to get concessions from EU counterparts on elements of the agreement they all reached late last year. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias) “The rules have all changed,” McVey said. “We all stood on a manifesto that no deal is better than a bad deal, and I still believe that Theresa May’s deal is a bad deal – but after the votes in the house last week, that isn’t the option facing us any more.

“No deal has been removed. Article 50 will be extended. So the choice before us is: this deal or no Brexit whatsoever – and to not have Brexit you go against the democratic vote of the people,” she told Sky on Sunday.

McVey also hinted that she would like to see a change of leadership in Downing Street, to take forward the next stage of negotiations.

Several Brexit-backing MPs have suggested they would like to see May step down in exchange for support for her deal. However, a Downing Street source insisted that the prime minister “has not discussed resignation”.

British Prime Minister Theresa May attends a news conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg, France March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler © Thomson Reuters British Prime Minister Theresa May attends a news conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg, France March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler A string of senior Tories have lined up to tout their leadership credentials, including former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, who offered his “vision for the opportunity society” last week. Raab remains opposed to May’s deal.

McVey’s change of heart, which she hinted at last week, came amid other signals that last week’s votes may have shifted the terrain in parliament.

One senior backbench rebel, Daniel Kawczynski, has publicly indicated he would now back May’s plan. Kawczynski, the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, acknowledged the prime minister’s deal was now the “only game in town”.

Another Brexiter, the MP for North Wiltshire, James Gray, appealed to fellow members of the Brexiter European Research Group (ERG) to get the “obnoxious” deal over the line.

But Downing Street is still focussed on the DUP as the best hope of winning over the bulk of the ERG – and in turn, convincing Labour MPs firmly against another referendum to support May’s deal instead.

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