Andrea Leadsom has urged Conservative MPs not to be “purist” about the changes Theresa May hopes to secure for the Irish backstop arrangement, as she said the House of Commons must give the prime minister more time for negotiations.
The comments are likely to spark concern among Tory Eurosceptics who have insisted the withdrawal agreement must be reopened and legally binding changes made to the backstop, though MPs differ over whether they would like it removed entirely and replaced or just given a time limit.
May will give a statement to the Commons on Tuesday where she will hope to convince MPs to give her another fortnight’s grace to keep pushing for changes to the backstop – despite the insistence of the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, overnight that it is Britain that must compromise.
Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, said MPs should “hold their nerve” and give May time to seek the changes they required, a coded warning to some MPs who may have been seeking to amend the prime minister’s motion later this week to force a new timetable for a fresh vote on the Brexit deal.
May had previously vowed to Eurosceptics after a vote passed in parliament mandating her to find “alternative arrangements” to the backstop that she understood that meant reopening the withdrawal agreement text – something the EU has insisted cannot be done.
Leadsom sounded cooler about that prospect on Tuesday, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and hinted that a codicil may be an alternative.
“The point is to ensure that the UK cannot be held in a backstop permanently. How it’s achieved is not something to be purist about,” she said.
“I’m wedded to delivering on what parliament has said it would support and that is some kind of unilateral means or alternative arrangements for the UK not to be held in the backstop permanently.”
Leadsom would not commit to a new vote on the Brexit deal being held by the end of February, or even before the next EU summit on 21 March, eight days before the UK is due to leave the EU.
She said the meaningful vote would be brought back only when May had “met the terms of parliament’s instructions two weeks ago that the backstop needed to be time-limited”.
May is expected to bring forward another amendable motion, similar to the motion tabled this week, on 27 February so MPs will have another opportunity for debate if no deal has been reached by then.
“Her message today is going to be that parliamentarians should hold their nerve,” Leadsom said.
“What the prime minister wants is a bit more time to undertake what are now pretty crucial but delicate negotiations with the EU. The work is under way and the prime minister needs a bit more time.”
Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles, two senior backbenchers whose amendment against no deal failed to gain majority support last month, have not yet made a final decision about whether to table a reworked version or wait until 27 February, the Guardian understands.
But they have been working on a revised version of their bill to extend article 50, which would then have to be tabled by mid-March to have a chance of being passed before exit day.
Their amendment would set a final mid-March deadline for May to win a majority for her deal, obliging the government to make time for the bill if she has not secured parliament’s support before then.
Labour will table its own amendment this week seeking to put what the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, calls a “hard stop”, on the government’s negotiating time by enforcing a deadline by which May must bring a deal back to the Commons.
At a dinner with the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, on Monday night, Barnier said he would listen to the UK’s plans for alternative to the backstop but insisted there was no chance of reopening the agreement.
“I will listen to what the secretary of state has to tell us concerning the alternative arrangements which the UK would like,” Barnier said before the dinner. “But it’s not more than a concept today.”
Responding to his comments, Leadsom said it was clear the compromise needed to be from Brussels.
“It would be an extraordinary outcome if the thing the backstop is seeking to avoid – a hard border in Northern Ireland – if the EU were so determined to be completely intransigent about it that they actually incur the very thing they are seeking to avoid by pushing the UK into a situation where we leave without a deal at the end of March,” she said.