Theresa May will make a last-ditch attempt to persuade the EU to give her a better Brexit deal on Friday, as she struggles to hold her crumbling government together following a day of cabinet embarrassments in Westminster.
The prime minister will plead with EU leaders to offer further concessions, as it became clear that talks in Brussels have stalled and hardline Eurosceptics in her party are likely to vote down the deal for a second time in parliament next week.
Senior Tory critics of May expressed astonishment that her strategy was a refusal to change course in the face of defeat, with one cabinet source saying No 10 realised it was about to lose the meaningful vote but seemed unable to make a coherent case to MPs why they should vote for it.
Instead, May will turn her fire at the EU in a speech delivered from the Brexit stronghold of Grimbsy in Lincolnshire, saying: “Just as MPs will face a big choice next week, the EU has to make a choice too.
“It is in the European interest for the UK to leave with a deal. We are working with them but the decisions that the European Union makes over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the vote.”
The speech will take place after a series of unforced errors by three cabinet ministers, forcing May’s chief spokeswoman to insist the prime minister still had confidence in them all.
As cabinet discipline appeared to break down, Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, had to issue a grovelling apology for saying that deaths caused by police and soldiers during the Troubles were “not crimes”.
Then Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, had to say sorry for referring to the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, as a “coloured woman”, and Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, suggested it should be for the Foreign Office to hold a debate on allegations of Islamophobia in the UK.
One Conservative former cabinet minister said it was “like the last days of Rome” and it was difficult to see how May would last many more weeks, even if her Brexit deal scraped through under heavy pressure.
The consensus among dozens of Tory MPs and ministers spoken to by the Guardian was that the withdrawal deal would not pass, as it appeared unlikely that Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, would secure a legally binding agreement from the EU that the Irish backstop was temporary. Without such an assurance, the hardline Eurosceptics in the European Research Group (ERG) and the Democratic Unionist party will have no reason to change their vote, as they will not countenance the idea that the UK could be bound into a permanent customs union with the EU.
Given the likelihood of defeat, there was heavy speculation in Westminster that May will end up pulling the votes she had promised MPs on whether to rule out a no-deal Brexit and a second on whether to extend article 50.
A senior government adviser said she could announce straight after losing the meaningful vote that she would seek an extension from the EU, knowing that she would only get either a short technical extension to enable the passing of her withdrawal deal or a lengthy 21-month one enabling a full rethink – dubbed a Brexit reset. The prime minister would then return to the House of Commons for a third time to put those proposals to a vote.
© ASSOCIATED PRESSMay has a serious problem with holding a vote on whether parliament should rule out no deal, as it is unclear which side of the argument she would be on and would risk resignations of cabinet ministers from each side of the Brexit debate if she whipped in either direction. It is understood a delegation of cabinet ministers met her chief of staff on Thursday to argue for a free vote.
But there was a growing feeling that she may attempt to avoid the problem altogether by moving first and offering to secure an extension to article 50. “It will get very, very nasty next week,” said one source close to a cabinet minister. “I think No 10 promised the votes never really thinking they were going to have to hold them because they were naively convinced the deal would go through.”