Theresa May will on Tuesday tell MPs “we now all need to hold our nerve” as she pleads for more time to secure changes to her Brexit deal.
The prime minister will say in a statement to the House of Commons at lunchtime that Brexit talks are at “a crucial stage”, but Labour and some cabinet members believe she is running down the clock to exit day on March 29 to force MPs to back her position rather than risk the UK crashing out of the bloc without an agreement.
With no revised Brexit deal in sight, some ministers expect Mrs May’s negotiations to run into next month in the hope that Brussels and her critics at Westminster blink.
The prime minister is seeking legally binding guarantees that the contentious backstop, which prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, is a temporary arrangement; talks have restarted in Brussels.
Mrs May is anxious that pro-European MPs do not derail her strategy this week by forcing her to extend the exit date set by the Article 50 divorce process and thus delay Brexit.
Yvette Cooper, former Labour minister, and Nick Boles, former Tory minister, last month failed in an attempt to pass a law forcing Mrs May to exclude a no-deal exit.
Pro-European MPs believe such a move is necessary to protect business from the grave uncertainty of a possible no-deal, but are divided on when to move against Mrs May.
Sympathetic Europhile ministers, who have threatened to resign to support such a move, have urged Ms Cooper and Mr Boles to hold fire until later in the month.
“We can’t afford to lose again,” one minister said. Mrs May has promised MPs another vote on the Brexit process by February 27, even if she has not agreed a revised deal in Brussels, after her withdrawal agreement was emphatically rejected by MPs last month.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said on Monday that “something has to give” on the British side of the talks, adding that there was no question of reopening the draft exit treaty which contains a contentious arrangement to avoid a hard Irish border.
One of Mrs May’s allies said of her talks in Brussels last week: “We had a series of meetings where they effectively told us they were not prepared to give us the things that we need.”
But in spite of the gloomy language coming out of Downing Street and Brussels, there are signs that Mrs May is gradually wearing down her opponents’ resistance as Brexit day approaches.
Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and leading Eurosceptic Conservative, said on Monday he would be prepared to back Mrs May’s deal if it contained a legal time limit on the Irish backstop.
The arrangement is strongly opposed by Eurosceptic Tories because it includes a “temporary” customs union between the UK and the EU that Brexiters fear could become permanent.
“You would have to be able to get out [of the Irish backstop] by a certain time and get out of our own volition,” said Mr Johnson.
However hardline Eurosceptics, including former cabinet ministers Owen Paterson and Iain Duncan Smith, want the backstop taken out of the withdrawal agreement — something Brussels is not prepared to countenance.
Mrs May’s allies believe that if Brussels can be persuaded to put a legally binding time limit on the backstop — which is by no means certain — the prime minister can peel off moderate Eurosceptics, leaving perhaps 30 or so diehard Brexiters holding out against a revised deal.
Meanwhile the Democratic Unionist party, which is supposed to prop up Mrs May’s minority government but voted against the withdrawal agreement, has signalled the DUP could abandon its opposition to the backstop if there was a legal guarantee about it only being a temporary arrangement.
And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s belated engagement with Mrs May about how to break the impasse at Westminster appears to be creating the opportunity for opposition MPs representing Brexit-supporting constituencies to back a revised deal.
Mrs May has wooed Labour MPs — who could be crucial to offsetting opposition to her deal from hardline Eurosceptic Conservatives — with promises on workers’ rights and an offer to provide financial help to so-called left-behind communities.
Although Mrs May and Mr Corbyn disagree on the Labour leader’s call for a permanent customs union with the EU, his new-found willingness to discuss her withdrawal agreement has also served to put supporters of a second Brexit referendum on the back foot.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it’s pretty grim,” said one referendum campaigner. “I don’t see a majority in the House of Commons for a second referendum,” said Sabine Weyand, Mr Barnier’s deputy, on Monday.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin