Closed Brexit: new vote called to avoid no-deal after heavy loss – as it happened


British prime minister Theresa May will put her Brexit deal to a vote in parliament on Tuesday after claiming victory in agreeing “legally binding” changes with Brussels late on Monday designed to win support from MPs. But the latest version of the deal, which aims to ensure that the Northern Irish backstop would be temporary, has already been met with scepticism from politicians in opposition as well as her own Conservative party. Many votes hinge on the legal verdict by attorney general Geoffrey Cox on the deal, and the backing of Northern Ireland’s DUP and the Brexit-supporting ERG group.

Brexit in balance as parliament votes on latest deal

Welcome to the FT’s Brexit live blog on a crucial day for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as parliament debates and then votes on the latest attempt by prime minister Theresa May to secure a divorce agreement. After agreeing new assurances late last night in Strasbourg designed to make sure that Britain will not be tied to the EU indefinitely, Mrs May now will put her revised deal to the test.

Tuesday timetable

Tuesday will be a decisive moment in Westminster. Meetings and briefings are taking place throughout the day that will decide whether the prime minister has any hope of seeing through her tweaked withdrawal package.

This is the approximate timetable for how things are set to pan out (writes the FT’s Seb Payne)

9:00am: The “Cash Council” of Brexit-supporting lawyers met to examine the prime minister’s proposals and decide whether it will endorse or reject the tweaks to the Irish border backstop. Eurosceptic MPs are hanging on this group to decide whether the changes will have legal meaning.

9:30am: The Cabinet met. Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, presented his legal opinion to ministers on whether the UK still risks being trapped in the backstop.

Before 11:30am: Mr Cox publishes his legal advice for MPs to digest.

11:30am: The House of Commons sitting commences, while Theresa May briefs Conservative MPs about her latest proposals.

12:30pm: Mr Cox will deliver a statement to the Commons on his legal advice.

Early afternoon: Speaker John Bercow will select the amendments and the “meaningful vote” debate to approve or reject the deal begins.

6pm: The European Research Group of MPs will meet to decide whether they will endorse or reject Mrs May’s latest deal.

7pm: Voting commences.

Keir Starmer on the new backstop plan

Labour’s Keir Starmer, a lawyer, says on Twitter that having examined the changes to the withdrawal agreement in relation to the backstop, he would be “surprised” if attorney-general Geoffrey Cox would be able to change the legal advice he gave back in December.

To recap, Mr Cox said at the time that the Irish backstop – an insurance policy that keeps the Irish border open in the event of a no-deal Brexit – could go on indefinitely, with Westminster and Brussels suspended in “protracted and repeated” rounds of talks over how to solve the issue.

Emoticon Legal risk remains

Attorney-general Geoffrey Cox says the legal risk remains unchanged, which will raise concerns about locking the UK into a permanent relationship with the EU after Brexit. His legal opinion on the new provisions will be crucial to winning over MPs worried about being stuck in a customs arrangement with the EU.

The link to Mr Cox’s legal advice is here:…tion_co..___2_.pdf

Pound under pressure

Sterling surrendered its gains on the US dollar and fell sharply after the UK attorney-general said prime minister Theresa May’s revised Brexit deal could leave Britain lodged in a customs union with the EU indefinitely.

The pound was off 0.75 per cent against the US dollar, trading at $1.3048, just after the release of the memo from Geoffrey Cox. It had traded as high as $1.3288 just after Monday night’s New York close. It was down 0.9 per cent against the common currency, with one euro buying £0.8621.

A ‘devastating’ blow for Theresa May

The FT’s political commentator Robert Shrimsley notes:

The last paragraph (below) of Geoffrey Cox’s statement looks devastating for Theresa May’s hopes of winning this vote. His comment that the “legal risk remains unchanged” could be game over for the prime minister.

The attorney-general has done his best for Mrs May saying he believes the new tweaks reduce the risk of permanent entrapment in the Irish backstop. But he goes on to say that this is a political, not a legal judgment. This is the key point Brexiters must make their decision on the basis on politics, not law. The question for them is the balance of risks. If they vote down the deal how great is the risk of something they consider worse.

The Brexit hardliners divide into two groups. Those looking for a way to climb down and back Mrs May and those who are not. The second group will feel vindicated in their judgment that this is not enough to change their vote. The first group will find it hard to argue that this legal advice is sufficient to justify returning to the fold. If they needed Mr Cox to give them cover to switch, he has not really done so. No wonder sterling has started to fall.

Cox’s advice was crucial

The attorney-general Geoffrey Cox has warned that the legal risk that the UK could be trapped in the Irish backstop is “unchanged”, despite Brexit assurances won by Theresa May.

Mr Cox’s advice was seen as crucial for winning over Tory Eurosceptic MPs and Democratic Unionist party MPs, writes political correspondent Henry Mance.

In November he advised that the Irish backstop – the insurance mechanism to avoid a hard Irish border – could endure “indefinitely”. But many political observers had expected him to change his advice after this month’s negotiations between the UK and Brussels.
Earlier on Tuesday, the former Brexit secretary David Davis said:

If Geoffrey Cox is at all equivocal about it then I think it will fall again.

Terrible legal assessment

This is a terrible assessment from Downing Street’s perspective, writes the FT’s Jim Pickard, and will crush Theresa May’s hopes of getting her “meaningful vote” in the House of Commons tonight.

Bear in mind that it was the Cox conclusion in January – that the UK could remain in the EU customs union “indefinitely” because of the Irish backstop – that inspired more than 100 Tory MPs to join the rebellion against their own prime minister.

Mr Cox, in his new opinion, said the new documents produced on Monday night did “reduce the risk” that the UK could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the protocol’s provisions. But even that was qualified, with the proviso “at least in so far as that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU”.

The attorney-general repeated his view that as long as both parties had “diligence, flexibility and goodwill” there should be a way of striking an agreement that would end the backstop. But that was a “political” judgement, he said.

May allies put on brave face

Theresa May’s allies in the cabinet are putting a brave face on Geoffrey Cox’s judgment on the prime minister’s revamped Brexit deal, writes Seb Payne, which falls significantly short of what Brexit-supporting MPs were hoping for.

“It is important to look at the whole judgment, not just the last paragraph,” said one cabinet minister. “There are many sets of circumstances where we will not be trapped in the backstop.”

Another said “there is a ladder for those of goodwill who want to use it”.

One minister claimed that the advice had not killed off Mrs May’s deal and had, in fact, kept it very much on the table.

Labour: Brexit in tatters

Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the government’s strategy was “in tatters”. He said:

Attorney-General confirms that there have been no significant changes to the Withdrawal Agreement despite the legal documents that were agreed last night

DUP not likely to support the deal

Hugh O’Connell of Ireland’s Sunday Business Post says in a tweet that a Democratic Unionist party source has told him they cannot support Theresa May’s deal after Geoffrey Cox’s advice.

Eurosceptics unhappy

Daniel Hannan, the former MEP who is known in some circles as the high priest of Eurosceptics, reports, unsurprisingly, that his tribe is disappointed with the latest developments on the backstop.

He tweets:

Eurosceptics were looking for just one thing: reassurance that Britain would not be swapping an arrangement that has an exit clause (EU membership) for one that does not (the backstop). Geoffrey Cox’s advice makes clear that no such concession has been made.

ERG waiting on the DUP

The FT’s Whitehall correspondent Sebastian Payne and political correspondent Laura Hughes have got some mixed reaction from Brexiter MPs.

They report that although most are disappointed by Geoffrey Cox’s judgment, they are waiting to see what the Democratic Unionist party decides on the new deal.

“There’s probably a load of twist and turns to come today but it’s not looking good, is it?” said one member of the European Research Group. “If this ends up being nothing dressed up as something, it will piss a whole load of people off even more…I want the star chamber assessment as well as [Geoffrey] Cox, so won’t make my mind up until later in the day.”

Another MP said: “I am inclined to support the PM but DUP position is crucial.”

“I want to be able to vote for it. It depends if the unilateral declaration has any actual legal meaning or if it’s just a nice letter. Whether I vote for it or not is irrelevant if the DUP don’t… but I’ll decide based on what the lawyers say,” said an ERG member.

May struggles to save deal

The prime minister is briefing Conservative MPs on her latest Brexit proposals. A range of MPs – including Michael Gove, Amber Rudd and James Cleverly – are in the room. One MP describes the mood as “dire” and said that “her voice is broken and she’s tired”, writes the FT’s Seb Payne.

The first question is from John Baron, the MP for Basildon and Billericay, asking about the attorney-general’s last, damning paragraph in his verdict concerning the remaining legal threat of the Brexit deal.

The PM had a good answer, according to sources in the room, “but no force in the words”.

MPs rally around May

There are frequent rounds of banging emanating from the Attlee Suite in Parliament’s Portcullis House where Theresa May is meeting her MPs, reports the FT’s Sebastian Payne.

‪MPs are cheering on Mike Penning, an arch-Brexiter and former defence minister, who says vote with the prime minister or get shafted by Labour.‬

Andrea Leadsom (below), the leader of the House of Commons, has just left, saying the mood is “very positive”.

DUP looking unlikely to support the deal

A Democratic Unionist party source has told the FT’s Laura Hughes “no”, they cannot see how the party can back the prime minister’s deal in the Commons tonight after reading Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice.

Cox to address parliament

The attorney-general is expected to address the Commons at 12.30pm to explain his verdict. Tory MPs are now leaving the meeting with Mrs May ahead of the debate this afternoon.

What will the ERG say?

Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby reports that the Brexit-supporting European Research Group will have its take on the Cox legal advice with us soon.

Arch-Brexiter won’t back May’s deal

Mark Francois of the European Research Group emerges from the prime minister’s meeting, saying the mood was “polite” and “everyone listened to the PM respectfully”, /reports the FT’s Sebastian Payne’. Mr Francois said there was question after question on paragraph 19 of Geoffrey Cox’s advice – the unchanged bit. Unsurprisingly, Mr Francois has said he will not be backing the PM.

Chaos threatened

George Freeman, a centrist Tory MP, said that there was a “collective sound of pennies dropping” in the prime minister’s meeting, writes the FT’s Sebastian Payne, and a “big migration of wildebeests” towards the deal. He added that MPs are realising there will be “proper chaos and crisis” if the deal is voted down.

Senior Eurosceptic: The backstop advice is ‘terminal’

To recap: attorney-general Geoffrey Cox, who is up in parliament shortly, has scotched hopes of a workaround for the Irish backstop issue as the March 29 Brexit deadline looms.

John Whittingdale, former culture secretary and a senior Eurosceptic MP, has suggested that Mr Cox’s advice was “pretty terminal,” writes Jim Pickard.

Mr Whittingdale was quizzing Stephen Barclay, Brexit secretary, appearing in front of MPs at the Brexit select committee on Tuesday morning.

Mr Barclay replied that people needed to see the deal as a “package, not in isolation”.

He said:

I accept the point that if both sides are negotiating in good faith, that is what the final paragraph [of the attorney-general's advice] is referring to and therefore there will need to be an arrangement.

But he added there had been a strengthening of protections against the EU acting in bad faith to “trap” the UK “and the attorney’s advice recognises it”.
He continued:

It does not go as far as you would like, I accept that. But it does allow for this issue of bad faith and the UK being trapped, and that is the issue that politically kept coming up in the chamber.

Rabbit or hamster?

The latest from the FT’s Sebastian Payne on the mood of the meeting between Theresa May and Conservative MPs ahead of the planned debate in the Commons:

MP Grant Shapps, the former Tory party chairman, says that one colleague told the PM: “We were hoping you would pull a rabbit out of the hat but it’s a hamster which may be enough for me.”

All about politics

Foreign office minister Alistair Burt says there were no surprises in the PM’s meeting and “it will all come down to politics”, says the FT’s Sebastian Payne.

May: meeting with Conservative MPs was ‘sufficient’

Reuters reports that the PM, fresh from briefing lawmakers from her own party and asked if that went well, described the outcome as “sufficient”.

Cox is addressing MPs

The attorney-general Geoffrey Cox is running through his legal opinion of the deal that Theresa May came back from Brussels with last night. He repeats what we all know as he has already published his opinion that the legal risk “remains unchanged”.

Cox: ultimately a political decision

Having run through the outlines of his legal advice, Geoffrey Cox concludes that ultimately MPs are left with a “political decision” to make on whether to back Theresa May’s deal, as a number of MPs have already pointed out.

Labour: government case ‘destroyed’

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Geoffrey Cox’s opposite number on the Labour benches, says there are seven sentences in his advice that “destroys the government’s case”.

What is the Brexit backstop?

For anyone who needs a recap, Alex Barker of our Brussels bureau has written this handy guide to the backstop, the controversial arrangement to keep the border between UK member Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open if the UK leaves Europe without a deal. It has, he writes, “come to epitomise Brexit’s hardest choices”. Read it here

Cox fires back at Labour

In response to Thomas-Symonds, Cox admits: “There is no ultimately unilateral right out of this arrangement but the question is whether it is a likelihood politically.”

He then goes on to the attack, pointing out that Labour’s view on the backstop is unclear.

He adds that what his advice does is address “the risk that we could be caught in the backstop and what this document does is reduce the levels of that risk.”

Lower risk of bad faith breach

In response to a question for clarity from Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith, Mr Cox said that the contents of Mrs May’s revised declaration reduce the risk that the UK would be held involuntarily and in bad faith into an arrangement with the EU.

The EU has a new obligation to find alternative to the backstop within 12 months, he said, and if they do not intensify efforts to find a solution then they will be in breach of good faith.

Cox tries to talk up the deal

He says the changes that May has secured do make a difference and reminds MPs that there is always a right to exit a treaty unilaterally if the situation fundamentally changes.

Vince Cable: how does this work, exactly?
The Liberal Democrat leader asks if the attorney general can:

Explain to a non lawyer how the respect of the international rule of law is enchanced by a unilateral declaration to break it?

Mr Cox reiterates his “good faith” argument.

DUP warns the Brexit backstop trap remains

Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader in Westminster, says the fact is that Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom could “be trapped” by the so-called backstop, which would leave the UK in an EU customs union if no full trade deal with the EU is reached within a year of Britain’s transition period, which runs to the end of 2020.

Emoticon ERG lawyers reject Brexit deal

The European Research Group’s lawyers have rejected Theresa May’s latest Brexit proposals, writes the FT’s Seb Payne, saying that there remains a risk the UK could be trapped in the Irish border backstop.

The so-called “Cash council”, named after veteran Eurosceptic MP Sir Bill Cash, said in a statement:

In the light of our own legal analysis and others we do not recommend accepting the Government’s motion today

One of the council’s members is Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the Democratic Unionist party. There has been a striking silence from the DUP so far today. But the fact Mr Dodds is part of a group that has firmly rejected the deal does not bode well for Mrs May. Eurosceptic MPs have said they will not back the deal unless the DUP changes its mind.

The other members of the “Cash council” include MPs David Jones, Dominic Raab, Suella Braverman, Michael Tomlinson and Robert Courts – plus Martin Howe.

Stella Creasy: nothing has changed

Labour’s Stella Creasy is up now to argue that “it is not possible to stop a hard border.” She adds that all the AG has done is to amplify rather than amend Mrs May’s original Brexit deal, which parliament shot down in January in a historic defeat for a British prime minister.

Mr Cox suggests that Ms Creasy looks at the wording and the text of his legal opinion, and repeats his points about good and bad faith.

The cost of unilateral withdrawal

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the ERG, asks Cox to explain what penalties the UK might face if a future government unilaterally withdrew from the Northern Irish backstop.

Cox replies that as attorney-general he couldn’t possibly “give countenance to the idea that this country could break its international legal obligations”.

But he adds there is a right for the UK to terminate if “fundamental circumstances change” and it can not resolve the issue politically through negotiations.

“Let’s be clear a sovereign state has a right to withdraw if a treaty is no longer compatible with its fundamental interests” and he confirms that it would be true that the EU’s only recourse in that situation would be to take “countermeasures” and no doubt it would pollute the atmosphere for future relations between us which is exactly why this country would never do this and nor would the European Union.”

Attorney-general still on his feet

Geoffrey Cox has been on his feet for over an hour trying to convince enough MPs in the chamber that the deal is still worth voting for . . . . one of the main focuses has been on what would happen to the UK if it wanted to unilaterally withdraw from the Northern Ireland backstop if it came into force because the EU and UK had not reached a deal by the end of 2020 (although it is worth noting there is a two-year extension available to the end of 2022).

First Tory call for a general election

In a sign of the political crisis that is gripping the UK, the FT’s Jim Pickard reports that one Tory MP has openly called for a general election to break the political impasse. Charles Walker, a senior figure in the 1922 committee of backbenchers, told BBC radio that Theresa May should go to the country if she loses the Meaningful Vote tonight: “She has to get a new mandate for the sake of the country. Needs must when the devil drives. We cannot go on trying to govern like this.”

That’s it from Cox

The attorney-general has finally finished taking questions from MPs after an hour and 20 minutes. Theresa May is due to open the full debate on the deal shortly.

EU ambassadors summoned to meeting

EU27 ambassadors have been summoned for debriefings from EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier’s team and the European Commission, writes the FT’s Mehreen Khan, to discuss consequences of the meaningful vote at 9am CET on Wednesday.

Theresa May is on her feet

The prime minister is on her feet to open the debate, she is trying to address MPs with a very hoarse voice.

DUP: progress has been insufficient

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, which is pro-Brexit and props up Mrs May’s minority government in Westminster, has said progress between the prime minister and Brussels on the thorny issue of the Northern Irish backstop has not yet been achieved.

In a statement, the DUP said:

The Prime Minister set out a clear objective for legally binding change which would command a majority in the House of Commons in line with the Brady amendment.

We recognise that the Prime Minister has made limited progress in her discussions with the European Union. However in our view sufficient progress has not been achieved at this time.

Having carefully considered the published material as well as measuring what has been achieved against our own fundamental tests, namely the impact of the backstop on the constitutional and economic integrity of the Union of the United Kingdom, it is clear that the risks remain that the UK would be unable to lawfully exit the backstop were it to be activated.

The Attorney General’s legal advice is clear in his last paragraph “the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements , save by agreement.”

We want to see a deal which works for every part of the United Kingdom. We will support the right deal which respects the referendum result and Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

The European Union has been intransigent. It is possible to reach a sensible deal which works for the United Kingdom and the European Union but it will require all sides to be reasonable and in deal making mode.

May battling her voice as well as MPs

The prime minister is now sucking a cough sweet as she insists that the only way to give businesses certainty for the future is to approve her deal tonight.

May: we could lose Brexit
The prime minister is promising to outline why her deal is improved and why MPs should vote for it this evening.

When Labour’s Frank Field asks if we “stand to lose Brexit in its entirety”, Mrs May responds: “the danger for those of us who want to deliver” is that if the deal is not passed tonight, Brexit will be lost.

On the idea of a second referendum, the PM says it is “imperative for this house that we meet the decision that was taken by the British people” in 2016.

Mrs May says the choices now boil down to her deal, no deal or no Brexit.

At just two pages into her speech, she has almost lost her voice.

May cuts isolated figure

Theresa May has opened the debate ahead of tonight’s meaningful vote and cuts an isolated figure in the House of Commons, speaking with a severely hoarse voice in front of swaths of empty green benches, writes the FT’s Jim Pickard.
Mrs May said that members of the Commons were facing a “very clear” choice between leaving the EU with a deal or not leaving at all.
The prime minister’s vocal problems were reminiscent of the Tory party conference in 2017, when she struggled through an hour-long speech.
As one Scottish National party MP heckled her, she replied: “You may say that but you should hear Jean-Claude Juncker’s voice after our talks.”

Emoticon DUP to vote against Brexit deal

A Democratic Unionist party official confirmed that the DUP’s 10 MPs will be voting against the deal and not abstaining, writes the FT’s Laura Hughes, dealing a fresh blow to Mrs May’s hopes of passing the divorce agreement in parliament tonight.

The scale of May’s challenge

According to an FT analysis by John Burn-Murdoch, Theresa May has a very narrow path to success this evening, but after the rejection of the deal by the Democratic Unionist party and the legal advisory team of the Eurosceptic ERG, it now looks impossible for her to win.

The key to victory would be to win over all but a hard core of the 107 Eurosceptic Conservatives who voted against her deal in January. But she would also need the backing of 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s DUP – which has just said it will vote against the deal – and about 20 Labour rebels.

The FT research indicates there are up to 21 Labour MPs who could be tempted to back the deal — most of whom sit in heavy Leave-voting constituencies.

It’s worth remembering that Mrs May’s first attempt to get her withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons was crushed by 230 votes in mid-January in the heaviest parliamentary defeat in history.

Game over for May’s deal?

The FT’s political commentator Robert Shrimsley says the Democratic Unionist party’s statement that all 10 MPs would vote against the deal would seem to suggest it is game over. Without the DUP there would seem to be no way that most Tory holdouts will come on board.
Mrs May has won over some rebels from the last vote but it looks like
nowhere near enough.

For the arithmetic see the previous post on the scale of the challenge to Mrs May.

More uncertainty if deal is defeated tonight

Sir Robert Syms, a Tory backbencher and former whip, offers Mrs May some support, pointing out that voting against the deal tonight would only increase uncertainty for business. The PM, not surprisingly, completely agrees.

Vote set for 7pm

The Speaker has confirmed that he has not selected any amendments to today’s motion, which means that the vote is expected at 7pm without any delays.

May: an extension without a plan would prolong uncertainty

The prime minister warns that should her vote fail this evening followed by parliament blocking a “no deal” exit tomorrow, it would leave the Commons to vote on an extension to Article 50 on Thursday. She warns that an extension would not guarantee anything and indeed give the EU a stronger hand in any negotiations if Brexit was delayed. She adds that an extension would also prolong uncertainty and if ultimately the UK crashed out at the end of the extension period, then MPs would have themselves to blame.

Some good news for May

There is some movement in the Conservative parliamentary party in the prime minister’s favour, reports the FT’s Seb Payne. Some MPs who were opposed to her Brexit deal have announced they will now support the government in tonight’s vote. Robert Halfon, Martin Vickers, Sir Mike Penning, Mark Pritchard, Johnny Mercer, John Lamont and Greg Hands are among the prominent switchers.

But with the Democratic Unionist party and the European Research Group set to vote against Mrs May tonight, this trickle is unlikely to turn into a torrent. Few in Westminster believe the prime minister is on course for victory at 7pm

One final push

After an hour on her feet and battling an increasingly hoarse voice, Mrs May urges MPs to put democracy ahead of “party, faction or personal ambition” and calls on them to “deliver on the instruction we were given” by the British people and to “back this deal”.

She then sits down and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, is on his feet.

Nothing has changed

Leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has attacked Mrs May’s Brexit deal, saying that “nothing has changed”. He confirms that the Labour party will be voting against the deal (barring of course Labour MPs – possibly as many as 20 – who are expected to defy their leader and vote with the government).

The Withdrawal Agreement is unchanged, the political declaration is unchanged… there is no degree of certainty at all. Its all spin and no substance.

Corbyn: Parliament must wrest control from the government

Jeremy Corbyn urged MPs to wrest control of the process from the failing Tory government, writes the FT’s Jim Pickard.

I believe there is a majority in this House for the sort of sensible credible and negotiable deal that Labour has set out. I look forward to Parliament taking back control so that we can succeed where this Government has so blatantly failed.

The Labour leader said he had not changed his views since December on why the deal did not deserve the support of his party: “It is a bad deal that will damage our economy, undermine our industries, irreparably harm our manufacturing sector, risk our NHS, damage our public services, harm living standards because it opens up the possibility of a race to the bottom, a bonfire of rights and protections, it provides no certainty on trade and customs arrangements in the future and that will risk people’s living standards.

It is worth noting that today was meant to be the day when up to 30 Labour MPs in Leave areas were meant to reluctantly swing their weight behind the deal. There is no sign of that happening right now.

Rees-Mogg still undecided but backs May as PM

This just in via PA from an interview on Sky news:

ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg said he has not yet decided which way to vote and would await a meeting of the Eurosceptic group at 5pm before making up his mind.

Mr Rees-Mogg said that abstention on such a serious issue was not “a realistic prospect” for many MPs.

“The question we really have to look at is when the Prime Minister says the risk of not voting for her deal is that we don’t leave, is that a serious risk or is that a phantom?” he told Sky News.

“My current view is that it is basically a phantom and, therefore, it is safe to vote against this deal again tonight and look to leaving on March 29 without a deal.

“But what she said has to be taken seriously and considered. It’s not a risk I would like to take if it is a real one.”

Mr Rees-Mogg played down the prospect of Mrs May being forced out by a heavy defeat, saying: “If it is less than 230, the Prime Minister will be able to say she is making some progress, so I wouldn’t worry about the Prime Minister’s position.”

Chamber now looking very empty as debate continues

There is a scattering of MPs left on the government benches as the SNP launches attack after attack on Mrs May’s deal. Scotland’s ruling party is hardcore Remain, given that the country rejected Brexit in the referendum by 62 to 38 per cent.

In another glimmer of good news for the PM, Scott Mann (pictured below with his surf board), a Tory backbencher from a Leave constituency in Cornwall who previously voted against Mrs May’s deal, has now decided to back it. In a couple of tweets he said:

I have decided to vote in favour of the deal despite my deep reservations and concerns about the backstop. I am disappointed that we have found ourselves in this position as a country, but there is now a real chance that if we do not take the deal Brexit could be lost. We now find ourselves in a position where we are not voting for or against the deal because of its merits or flaws, but because we are either in flavour of implementing Brexit or betraying it.

Correction: Thanks to reader “Pernaffo” I should point out that the bright yellow object in the picture is in fact a body or “boogie” board not a surfboard

Independence for Scotland

Ian Blackford, the leader of the SNP in Westminster, ends his speech with the promise that if Brexit goes ahead then his party will have no option but to push for another independence referendum. The SNP lost a vote on independence for Scotland in 2014 but has consistently warned that the Brexit referendum, which saw Scotland back Remain, has materially changed the status quo and therefore the UK government should grant a second vote.

Another Tory rebel MP says he will back the deal

Tim Loughton, another backbencher who previously voted against Mrs May’s deal, says he will now back it. He praises Nicky Morgan, the former Tory cabinet minister, who was a core Remainer but is now convinced MPs should support the withdrawal agreement and warns on MPs remaining in their entrenched positions. “Actions and votes have consequences,” she says.

Gove mints it

Christopher Hope, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, finds a light-hearted moment as crisis grips Westminster. He tweets:

Parliament is in ferment. In the past half an hour I have managed to interrupt two groups of four of five Tory MPs who were anxiously discussing what on earth is going to happen next.
The tension was only broken when Michael Gove walked up to us and said: “Anyone want a polo?”

Michael Gove, for those not in the know, is the environment secretary and one of the key figures in the Leave campaign. And a “Polo” is a brand of peppermint sweet.

Vote against no-deal needed

Hilary Benn, the Labour party MP and chair of the Brexit select committee, called on Theresa May to vote with him against a no-deal outcome in a vote on Wednesday (which is the next step if the PM loses the vote later this evening), given this would be the “worst possible outcome”. If a no-deal situation is defeated, then he says that parliament needs to decide on an extension. But, he stresses, there needs to be a purpose to the extension.

Grieve: I fear for the union

Dominic Grieve, the former Tory attorney-general and a supporter of a second referendum, says MPs have “essentially disrespected” the four countries that make up the UK and as a unionist he says he fears for the future. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the Brexit referendum, while England and Wales backed Leave.

Mr Grieve believes a second vote should give people the choice between Theresa May’s deal and Remain. “To deny them that choice when they are faced with this current crisis is an unacceptable way to proceed.”

He says he will vote against the deal.

Cable: Give people a second chance

Vince Cable, leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrats and who also backs a second referendum, says he does not believe most people who voted to Leave realised how bad the impact of Brexit would be. He highlights the impact on universities, who are having trouble retaining EU staff, and what he calls the “dismantling” of the European Investment Bank’s presence in London, which has helped fund some of the largest infrastructure projects in the UK, including London’s Crossrail rail line.

The EIB is the world’s biggest development bank owned entirely by the EU’s 28 governments. Until Brexit, of course, when the UK, its joint biggest shareholder, will have to pull out.

Tory support grows

Johnny Mercer MP has become the latest Tory to side with Theresa May’s revised deal, with some commentators now counting as many as 17 Conservatives who voted against the deal in January now backing the government.

Sterling in waiting game

Sterling is trading just above the lows of the day both against the US dollar and common currency ahead of tonight’s Commons vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, writes the FT’s Adam Samson.

The British currency is off 0.6 per cent versus the buck in afternoon trading in New York at $1.3071. It faced a heavier loss against the euro, leaving it down 1 per cent at £0.8634.

Jordan Rochester, currency strategist at Nomura in London, says: “The base case is that this deal fails tonight, no deal ruled out tomorrow and an article 50 extension takes place on Thursday. MPs may try and force via amendments in that Thursday vote to have more control over the timeline or direction of Brexit.”

He added that sterling will probably “tread water until we get a better sense on Thursday but headlines will still matter in between”.

ERG meets to decide position

The pro-Brexit European Research Group is now meeting in the Jubilee Room off Westminster Hall to decide its position on whether to support the prime minister this evening, writes Seb Payne.

The room is packed with MPs. The ERG’s influential working group of lawyers earlier today said that they could not recommend a vote in favour of the deal.

Rumour mill in overdrive

The FT’s Seb Payne reports that there are unconfirmed rumours swirling around Westminster that Mrs May could respond to a defeat by announcing she will seek a short extension to Article 50 – despite telling the Commons over a hundred times that the UK “will and must” leave on March 29.

This may mark a final effort to bounce Eurosceptic MPs into backing her deal in a third meaningful vote. Downing Street sources suggested that any talk about what happens after the vote should be taken with “pinch of salt”.

Boris Johnson: “Act like a great country”

Boris Johnson, a wannabe Tory leader, former Foreign secretary and the key figure in the Leave campaign, rejects the government’s claim that the legal risk of entering the Northern Ireland backstop is “minimal.” He urges MPs “not to act timorously but as a great country does” by rejecting May’s deal which would leave the UK as a vassal state of the EU. He says the deal would leave the UK subject to EU regulations which would run against democratic principles. He suggest the solution is to leave with no deal on “WTO terms”.

Mr Johnson says although he will vote against the deal he is not in favour of “crashing out” and believes that he could go back to the EU and renegotiate a transition arrangement. He doesn’t really explain how that will happen.

Protesters gather outside Parliament

Campaigners on both sides of the debate have gathered in Westminster ahead of the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal at 7pm.

What happens next?

While the debate in the Commons continues, just a reminder that we are expecting one vote this evening on Theresa May’s “new” deal at 7pm GMT.

If, as is now widely expected, the government loses that vote, the next step should be another debate and vote in parliament tomorrow on whether MPs back the UK leaving the EU on a “no-deal” basis.

A no deal exit is likely to be defeated tomorrow, which would then trigger a third day of debate when MPs are due to vote on instructing the government to go back to Brussels asking for an extension to Article 50, the instrument that triggers the UK’s departure from the EU. The EU27 and the Commission have indicated they would need to be convinced that the UK has a viable alternative plan in order to grant an extension.

Of course there is always a chance this timetable could change later, if Downing Street decides to pursue a different strategy.

PM could be on course for heavy defeat

According to the FT’s latest tally, Theresa May is on course to narrow January’s 230 vote defeat of her previous Brexit deal to a loss of less than 200 votes tonight.

So far, 20 Conservatives who voted against last time are now expected to back the deal, according to the FT’s data guru John Burn-Murdoch, with two more Labour MPs also set to switch sides.

Those 22 MPs would translate into a 44 vote swing, narrowing the deficit to 186. At least one other Conservative MP who voted against last time is expected to abstain, which would take May’s defeat to 185. But with the ERG still to make clear their final intentions, and many more MPs yet to commit, there is still time for Mrs May to claw back further votes.

ERG looks set to vote against the deal

The FT’s Seb Payne, who is outside the ERG meeting, grabbed Simon Clarke, the Conservative MP for Middlesborough South, on his way out. He said there was a “clear majority” of its members who will vote against Mrs May’s deal. “Not everyone [in the ERG] but it’s enough”.

A warning from the EU’s chief negotiator

In this age of social media, the top EU Brexit negotiator can now fire off warning shots in real time. Michel Barnier has taken to Twitter to try to hose down the MPs who he believes are living under misconception about when the UK will enter a transition period. It would seem to be a pointed reference to Boris Johnson, who seemed to claim earlier that the UK should leave with no deal and renegotiate a new trade agreement with the EU – see the post from 5:29pm.

For those who can’t access Twitter it reads:

Listening to debate in @HouseofCommons : there seems to be a dangerous illusion that the UK can benefit from a transition in the absence of the WA.
Let me be clear: the only legal basis for a transition is the WA. No withdrawal agreement means no transition.

Tory rifts over Brexit deal

Tensions are running high in the Conservative party this evening, particularly between the government and hardline Eurosceptics.

One minister told the FT’s Seb Payne:

There is a huge amount of anger against the ERG. They have the chance of Brexit, albeit done in a reasonably sensible and gradual way and they are too brain dead to realise it. They have repeatedly shown themselves to be unable to take responsibility for decisions rather than needing to be permanent rebels. They have a pathological need for grievance. They won’t get no-deal, they will get a second referendum and everybody in the country can see it apart from them.

It is almost as if they have a psychological aversion to actually getting what they have always wanted. . .their bigger miscalculation is that they believe the Conservative Party will praise them for it – it won’t. The party will soon realise that Brexit was lost by these numbskulls, as will the country at large.

Debate winding up

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, is wrapping up the debate from the opposition benches. He says for many MPs the issue of May’s Brexit deal has “become a matter of trust” and says he has repeatedly raised concerns that the Theresa May was making promises she could not fulfil.

He says, week after week, she has made those promise to avoid defeat, in reference to the PM’s various manoeuvrings to try to avoid losing successive votes in the Commons.

He says that the legal advice of Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, shows that Theresa May failed to secure the legal changes she had promised.

He says the deal is “fatally flawed” and says the future relationship agreement is nothing more than an “option paper”. He adds the deal will not deliver frictionless trade. “This is a sorry outcome after two years of negotiations”, he concludes.

MPs voting on Brexit deal

Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay has wound up the arguments for the government’s position, urging MPs to vote for Theresa May’s deal. The floor has cleared as MPs have gone to vote, with a decision due at 7.15pm. Theresa May was not looking happy earlier

Result due shortly

The chamber of the Commons is packed, we expect the result shortly

Emoticon May’s deal defeated

MPs have comprehensively rejected the deal by 391 votes to 242

May is on her feet

She says she “profoundly regrets” the decision of the MPs. She is confirms the timetable for tomorrow, with a vote on a no-deal Brexit. She has offered her party a free vote on this motion.

May again warns on an extension to Brexit

May confirms if a no deal Brexit is defeated she will hold a vote on Thursday for a vote on extending Article 50 but warns that “does not solve our problems”.

She says the choices to MPs – a second referendum, an attempt to get a new deal with the EU – are uneviable choices.

EU regrets vote outcome

A spokesman for Donald Tusk said that the EU regretted the outcome of the vote and was disappointed that the UK government has been unable to ensure a majority for the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by both parties in November. Tusk warns of the increased likelihood of a no-deal Brexit but also holds out the possibility of an extension, if requested by the Brits, but warns it must come with a “credible justification”.

On the EU side we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement. Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and yesterday, it is difficult to see what more we can do. If there is a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London.

The EU for its part continues to stand by the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, which serves to prevent a hard border in Ireland and preserve the integrity of the single market unless and until alternative arrangements can be found.

With only 17 days left to 29 March, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. We will continue our no-deal preparations and ensure that we will be ready if such a scenario arises.

Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity. The EU27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured

Sterling hit by defeat

Britain’s currency was stuck in negative territory on Tuesday evening after the revised Brexit pact Theresa May negotiated with the EU faced a defeat in Britain’s parliament, reports Adam Samson from FastFT.

Sterling was down 0.52 per cent at $1.3071 following the failure of the prime minister’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons. It was down 1 per cent against the euro at £0.8631.

The latest blow for Number 10 will throw the spotlight on a series of votes expected to take place later this week, one on whether the UK should exit the EU without a deal and another on whether the Brexit date should be extended past March 29.

The pound has pushed well above its January lows of around $1.25 over the past few weeks as investors have bet parliament would not have the appetite to allow for a no-deal Brexit. It has since climbed as high as $1.3288 late on Monday but trading had been choppy for much of the session on Tuesday.

Corbyn calls for no deal to be taken off table

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, said that “no deal must be taken off the table”, adding that the house must unite around a proposal – Labour’s proposal, which will be put forward again. He says that May has again run the clock down, and raised the prospect of a general election.

Labour’s proposal

In case you need reminding, this is Labour’s Brexit proposal:

During the transition period, Labour would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market. That means we would abide by the existing rules of both.

Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe, and help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland. Such an arrangement would need to ensure the UK would have an appropriate say on any new trade deal terms.

The party’s full Brexit plan can be found here.

EU no-deal preparations

EU negotiator Michel Barnier said:

The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the #UK. Our “no-deal” preparations are now more important than ever before.

Votes prepared for this week

The leader of the House has made a statement regarding the business for tomorrow and the remainder of this week – flagging the free vote over a no-deal Brexit tomorrow but not yet one regarding an extension to Article 50 on Thursday. Speaker John Bercow confirms vote over a no-deal Brexit will be held at 7pm.

Labour’s priority is its Brexit deal

Richard Burgon, the shadow secretary of state for justice, tells the BBC the priority for Labour is to get its Brexit deal approved by MPs but says a second referendum remains a possibility.

The Switchers

May’s suffered a defeat of 149 votes at the second attempt to get her deal through the Commons, down from the historic 230 vote defeat at her first attempt in January. The FT’s data team has worked out the names of those 40 MPs that switched (there was also one abstention, Tory backbencher Douglas Ross). Here is the list: David Amess, Bob Blackman, Ben Bradley, Graham Brady, Fiona Bruce, Maria Caulfield, Tracey Crouch, Philip Davies, David Davis, Nadine Dorries, Steve Double, Nigel Evans, David Evennett, Zac Goldsmith, Robert Halfon, Greg Hands, John Hayes, Greg Knight, John Lamont, Tim Loughton, Scott Mann, Stephen McPartland, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Metcalfe, Nigel Mills, Andrew Mitchell, Damien Moore, Matthew Offord, Mike Penning, Mark Pritchard, Will Quince, Julian Sturdy, Hugo Swire, Robert Syms, Derek Thomas, Martin Vickers, Giles Watling, Bill Wiggin, William Wragg and Caroline Flint.

What next?

There is a growing sense that Theresa May will vote to take no deal off the table on Wednesday after giving her MPs a free vote and there is anger among Brexiters that the PM has decided not to whip it.

But it is worth bearing in mind that even if parliament does vote against a no-deal, it remains the legal default option, if the UK cannot secure an extension of Article 50 from the EU27.

Dutch PM reminds UK any extension requires unanimity

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte – whose economy is one of the most exposed to disorderly Brexit – called on the UK to provide a “credible and convincing” argument for any Brexit extension, reports the FT’s Mehreen Khan from Brussels.

He tweeted:

Should the UK hand in a reasoned request for an extension, I expect a credible and convincing justification. The #EU27 will consider the request and decide by unanimity. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions needs to be ensured.

Time to stop this circus – business leaders

It is fair to say that business leaders are not happy with tonight’s vote, and the continued uncertainty that it means.

“Enough is enough. This must be the last day of failed politics”, said Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general. “A new approach is needed by all parties. Jobs and livelihoods depend on it.”

She added that extending Article 50 to close the door on a March no-deal “is now urgent”, as short as realistically possible and backed by a clear plan. “It’s time for Parliament to stop this circus.”

Edwin Morgan, interim director general of the Institute of Directors, said “it is essential that political leaders on all sides look beyond party lines to find a way to move the country forward”.

While business leaders will be eager to see the details on tariffs and the Northern Ireland border, the Government’s belated contingency planning and lack of transparency have made it almost impossible for many of them to prepare adequately for no deal by 29 March

The FT’s view

The FT calls on MPs to to ensure chaos is averted, otherwise a breakdown could be exploited by extremists of left and right, and the country heads for a no-deal exit. MPs must stabilise the political situation and create the space for a Brexit rethink.

Read the full editorial here.

Downing Street’s Labour ‘bribes’ fail

The FT’s Jim Pickard asks: remember how Number 10 was hoping to get Labour MPs on board by offering employment reforms and a £1.6bn fund for struggling towns? In the end only three Labour MPs backed the deal (Kevin Barron, Caroline Flint, John Mann) and two former Labour MPs (Frank Field and Ian Austin).

Westminster Wednesday

A busy day in parliament tomorrow as MPs vote on whether to take no-deal off the table in a vote in the evening, but will first hear the Chancellor’s Spring statement at 12.30pm which could take several hours.

First up for government business will be the release of details of what the border between the UK and Ireland will look like in a no-deal Brexit in the morning.

Heavy hitters table amendment

Steve Baker, the Tory Brexiter, has Tweeted out a photo of a proposed amendment that is being tabled tomorrow with some other heavy hitters in his party. Dubbed the Malthouse Compromise Plan B, in reference to the original Malthouse Compromise, rejected by Theresa May, that sought to find an alternative to the so-called Northern Irish backstop. Like the original, it is a product of Conservative MPs from both wings of the party, ranging from Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of the Brexiter European Research Group, to the pro-EU former education secretary Nicky Morgan.

The amendment, if allowed, proposes a brief extension of Article 50 to May 22 and then some kind of transition period until the end of 2021 during which time the UK will seek to negotiate a deal with the EU.

Other supporters of the amendment include Conservative grandees Damian Green and Ian Duncan Smith as well as Nigel Dodds, the leader of the DUP at Westminster.

Here’s a screengrab of the amendment:

That’s a wrap
We are going to end our live coverage of events in Westminster today. We will be back from early tomorrow morning. Please join us then. Meanwhile for further news and analysis you can find our Brexit coverage here