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May quitting will not get Brexit deal through, say Eurosceptics

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/03/2019 Rowena Mason Deputy political editor
Theresa May wearing a hat and smiling at the camera: Theresa May’s position is looking increasingly precarious. © AFP/Getty Images Theresa May’s position is looking increasingly precarious.

Eurosceptics have told Theresa May that defeat on her Brexit deal looks certain without more concessions from Brussels, even if she offers to quit in exchange for them voting to get it over the line.

The prime minister’s position is looking increasingly precarious, as cabinet ministers have floated the idea of forcing May to name a date for her departure if this could persuade hardline Eurosceptics agree to back her deal.

Some leave supporters may be tempted to go for this option to allow a Brexiter such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Dominic Raab to take over and have a go at negotiating the second phase – or the future relationship with the EU.

However, the idea of voting for May’s deal in return for her exit was outright rejected by other Brexit supporters, with David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, saying it “will not get the vote through”.

Conservative MP David Davis takes part in the launch of a proposed UK-EU free trade agreement in London on February 6, 2019. - Plans for Britain to leave the European Union on March 29 under a withdrawal agreement signed last year were thrown into doubt when British lawmakers rejected the accord. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images) Conservative MP David Davis takes part in the launch of a proposed UK-EU free trade agreement in London on February 6, 2019. - Plans for Britain to leave the European Union on March 29 under a withdrawal agreement signed last year were thrown into doubt when British lawmakers rejected the accord. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)

“You can change the leader but you can’t change the numbers,” Davis told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. “We have got to focus on the issue here … Nothing else will work.”

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Some of the most hardline leave backers are implacably opposed to the deal unless the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, secures a legally binding way out of the Irish backstop, which as currently stands could keep the UK in a permanent customs union with the EU.

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputy leader Nigel Dodds reacts as he leaves the Cabinet Office on Whitehall, in central London on January 31, 2019. - Britain may need to delay Brexit to pass legislation to implement the split with the European Union, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Thursday. As the March 29 withdrawal date looms, the government is still trying to convince MPs to support a version of the divorce deal it has agreed with the bloc. Prime Minster Theresa May's Conservative minority government is propped up by the Democratic Unionists (DUP), Northern Ireland's pro-British and pro-Brexit party. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images) Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputy leader Nigel Dodds reacts as he leaves the Cabinet Office on Whitehall, in central London on January 31, 2019. - Britain may need to delay Brexit to pass legislation to implement the split with the European Union, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Thursday. As the March 29 withdrawal date looms, the government is still trying to convince MPs to support a version of the divorce deal it has agreed with the bloc. Prime Minster Theresa May's Conservative minority government is propped up by the Democratic Unionists (DUP), Northern Ireland's pro-British and pro-Brexit party. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images) Writing for the Sunday Telegraph, Steve Baker, a leading figure in the European Research Group, and Nigel Dodds, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, described defeat for the deal as “inevitable” and predicted a “three-figure majority” against the deal as it currently stands – a similar position to last time.

Conservative MP Steve Baker attends a meeting of the pro-Brexit European Research Group in London, Britain, November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls © Thomson Reuters Conservative MP Steve Baker attends a meeting of the pro-Brexit European Research Group in London, Britain, November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls “An unchanged withdrawal agreement will be defeated firmly by a sizeable proportion of Conservatives and the DUP if it is again presented to the Commons,” they wrote. “If with the DUP just half of previous Conservative opponents vote against the deal, a three-figure majority would be expected.”

Brexit supporters were this weekend gearing up to blame Brussels for failing to offer enough concessions to get the deal over the line.

Ian Duncan Smith addresses the Conservative spring forum at the Welsh Conservative Conference in Cardiff.   (Photo by David Jones/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Images Ian Duncan Smith addresses the Conservative spring forum at the Welsh Conservative Conference in Cardiff. (Photo by David Jones/PA Images via Getty Images) Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader and cabinet minister, wrote in the Mail on Sunday: “If reports are to be believed, the EU has acted in bad faith and rejected [Cox’s] proposals for a simple but legally binding guarantee that the backstop – the agreement which prevents a hard border in Ireland – would not lock Britain in for ever.

“And it is clear that unless there is such a guarantee, the backstop – which puts us in ‘temporary’ alignment with EU trade rules – is indeed a trap from which the UK might never escape.”

Raab, a former Brexit secretary and leading contender for the leadership, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “We’ve seen total intransigence from the EU.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 15: Former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab speaks to the media during a press conference to offer an alternative Brexit plan on January 15, 2019 in London, England. Dominic Raab and David Davis, two former cabinet secretaries who resigned in protest over Theresa May's Brexit deal, appeared with Northern Irish MP Arlene Foster this morning to promote a revised withdrawal agreement they contend can win the support of parliament. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) © 2019 Getty Images LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 15: Former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab speaks to the media during a press conference to offer an alternative Brexit plan on January 15, 2019 in London, England. Dominic Raab and David Davis, two former cabinet secretaries who resigned in protest over Theresa May's Brexit deal, appeared with Northern Irish MP Arlene Foster this morning to promote a revised withdrawal agreement they contend can win the support of parliament. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) However, May supporters have not entirely given up on getting the deal through parliament. Cabinet ministers planning to back May’s agreement hit the airwaves on Sunday to warn colleagues of the consequences of refusing to back the prime minister on Tuesday.

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Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said the consequences of Conservative MPs voting down May’s deal would be electorally “devastating” for the party, which would be blamed for failing to deliver Brexit. He called for “realism” among Eurosceptics, warning that failure to back the deal would lead to an extension, and then possibly a second referendum.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt takes part in a Q and A after delivering a speech on 'Defending Democracy in the Cyber Age' at the University of Glasgow. (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Wire/PA Images Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt takes part in a Q and A after delivering a speech on 'Defending Democracy in the Cyber Age' at the University of Glasgow. (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images) Adding to the pressure on MPs, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is expected to offer Conservative MPs a £20bn pot of money to finally “end austerity” in his spring statement on Wednesday if the prime minister’s deal passes.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 15:  Chancellor Phillip Hammond arrives at Number 10 Downing Street on November 15, 2018 in London, England. Cabinet Ministers Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, and Esther McVey, Work and Pensions Secretary resigned this morning after last night's cabinet meeting backed the draft Brexit agreement. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) © 2018 Getty Images LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 15: Chancellor Phillip Hammond arrives at Number 10 Downing Street on November 15, 2018 in London, England. Cabinet Ministers Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, and Esther McVey, Work and Pensions Secretary resigned this morning after last night's cabinet meeting backed the draft Brexit agreement. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

If May’s deal fails to pass, she has committed to holding votes in parliament on whether to rule out a no-deal Brexit and whether to extend article 50 – both of which MPs are likely to support.

Campaigners for a second referendum then hope that they could gain momentum while the UK remains in limbo and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit becomes more real.

However, May’s team would push for more talks with Brussels and try to hold a third meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. She could be forced to reach out to the opposition to strike an agreement on a customs union with the EU, in a move that would infuriate the Eurosceptics and worsen Conservative divisions.

Downing Street insiders are privately concerned that May will not be able to hold on to power long enough to get to the point of a third meaningful vote, as she could be forced by colleagues to resign and allow a replacement leader to conduct a “Brexit reset”.

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