British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday faced fresh attacks on her Brexit deal after MPs forced her government to publish legal advice on the arrangements for leaving the European Union.
Pro- and anti-Brexit MPs seized on the advice relating to clauses on Northern Ireland, warning once again they would not back the deal when the House of Commons votes on it on December 11.
The Northern Irish party which props up May’s government said it was “totally unacceptable”, while the pro-European Scottish National Party (SNP) accused May of concealing the truth until now.
May said she understood their concerns and fuelled speculation she was still seeking a compromise to avoid a heavy defeat in the Brexit vote next week.
“I believe that the deal we have negotiated is a good deal,” she told MPs, adding: “I’m continuing to listen to colleagues on that and considering a way forward.”
It is not clear what she can do. May says the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened, echoing EU leaders who want the issue settled as Brexit looms in March.
But the fragility of her position was laid bare in a stunning series of Commons defeats on Tuesday night.
Her allies, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), sided with the opposition Labour party to find ministers in contempt for failing to publish in full the legal advice on the Brexit deal.
Some her own Conservative MPs meanwhile voted with Labour to give the Commons more say in what happens if the deal falls.
The government on Wednesday published the legal advice on the most controversial clause of the deal, relating to the “backstop” plan to avoid border checks with Ireland.
May said she had always been clear on the risks of the arrangement, which could keep Britain in the EU’s customs union indefinitely after Brexit, and risks a separate status for Northern Ireland.
But SNP lawmaker Ian Blackford was twice reprimanded by the Commons speaker for suggesting May had been “concealing the facts on her Brexit deal”.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, said the legal advice revealed “the central weaknesses in the government’s deal”.
May opened the debate on the Brexit deal on Tuesday with a personal plea for MPs to back her, and will hold meetings with Conservative colleagues in the coming days to try to convince them.
Ministers will make the government’s case during four more days of debate, but few believe they can overcome the intense opposition to the deal.
If May loses next week’s vote, the government has 21 days to return to MPs to propose what happens next, first in a statement and then a motion to the Commons.
MPs on Tuesday backed an amendment tabled by Conservative former attorney general Dominic Grieve that would allow the Commons to amend that motion.
This raises the possibility they could demand a re-negotiation, a second referendum or even staying in the EU.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox aired that concern on Wednesday, saying that a majority in favour of staying in the EU in parliament “may attempt to steal Brexit from the British people”.
Going round in circles
Some Conservative MPs are pushing for a second referendum, but May warned against spending “the next decade as a country going round in circles”.
Many MPs want May to return to Brussels to renegotiate her deal, and she is due at a summit two days after next week’s vote.
Some are pushing for Britain to stay in the European Economic Area (EEA).
But some eurosceptic Conservatives believe Britain can leave without any deal at all, even after a government assessment found this risked causing a major recession.
If her deal fails, Labour has said it will almost certainly trigger a confidence vote in the Commons, while May also risks a challenge by her own Conservative MPs.
In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Commission began the process of ratifying the Brexit deal.
“Of course we need to see what the outcome of discussions in UK parliament and the result of a vote in parliament would be,” Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said.
“But we are preparing for the deal, we have agreed on the deal with the government.”