By Paul Waugh
Allies of Theresa May have launched a desperate bid to woo rebel Tory MPs by floating the prospect of a better deal on Brexit, HuffPost UK has learned.
Members of the government have suggested to senior Brexiteers that if they support the Prime Minister she could go back to Brussels to renegotiate key parts of her controversial plans, including the status of Northern Ireland.
One former Cabinet minister was even told on Thursday by a ministerial aide that the so-called ‘backstop’ element of the deal, a complex means of avoiding hard border between the province and Ireland, could be refined to meet worries of the DUP and Tory MPs.
With Downing Street extremely nervous of a growing backbench move to topple the PM, frantic efforts have been made by whips and ministerial aides to limit the number of letters calling for a vote of confidence in her.
Jacob Rees-Mogg was among a string of MPs, including former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who revealed they had now submitted such letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee.
A confidence vote can only take place once at least 15% of the party, or 48 MPs, call for one to take place.
Government whips and Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) have been deployed through the day to reassure backbenchers and to head off the threat of a leadership challenge. May will embark on an intensive round of media interviews to sell her plans too.
No.10 sources stress that while the legal Withdrawal Agreement is unlikely to be changed, the outline ‘political declaration’ that accompanies it is clearly up for further negotiation.
In her Downing Street press conference, May herself tried to reassure the DUP and Tory MPs, twice repeating that she too had “concerns” about the backstop proposal.
“I recognise there are concerns about the backstop, that is an issue and I share many of those concerns.
“The decision to go forward on the basis that we have overall was not an easy one. But overall looking at the national interest we agreed as a Cabinet and as a government that the deal that we have is the right one to proceed with.”
She added: “I understand some people feel uncomfortable about the details in the backstop particularly in the Withdrawal Agreement and I share some of those concerns.”
But the PM also said that the guarantee demanded by the EU on Northern Ireland was unavoidable.
“There is another inescapable fact – there is no deal which can be agreed with the European Union that does not involve a backstop to act as an insurance policy against a return to the borders of the past in Northern Ireland.
“All the other approaches – Norway, Canada Plus – would all require a backstop. And the alternative of repudiating that backstop would not only mean reneging on a promise to the people of Northern Ireland but it would also collapse the negotiations and end hopes of securing a deal.”
No changes to the Withdrawal Agreement are likely, given it took months to secure the text with Brussels, but improvements to the political declaration are keenly sought, sources confirmed.
One senior Brexiteer MP has told May’s supporters that she can survive if she changes her plans. Some critics have been heartened to see the PM ditch the ‘Chequers’ proposals for a common EU-UK rulebook on trade and now want her to go further.
“The drawbridge has not been lifted up yet, if she shows she’s listening,” they said.
Government whips have told backbenchers that with Labour certain to vote against the deal, and with Tory MPs making clear they were unhappy with parts of it, Brussels would have to make more concessions.