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Theresa May has aborted a planned vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday — according to several people close to cabinet ministers — in a humiliating setback for a prime minister who was facing a heavy defeat in the House of Commons.
Downing Street said at 11.15am that the vote was going ahead “as planned” but shortly afterwards the prime minister told her cabinet on a conference call it would be postponed, according to officials briefed on the matter. Number 10 has so far declined to comment.
The pound fell 0.7 per cent against the euro to trade at €1.1087 — its lowest level since September — as markets responded to fears that the vote would be called off, which could plunge the Brexit process into still greater turmoil.
Mrs May’s decision followed warnings from Julian Smith, chief whip, that her Brexit deal would suffer an overwhelming defeat if she pushed ahead, with dozens of Conservative MPs threatening to vote it down.
The prime minister hopes the delay will allow her time to secure an improved deal in Brussels and will travel to a planned European Council meeting on Thursday to plead for help from the 27 remaining EU member states.
Her focus is on the Irish backstop— the insurance policy against a hard border in Ireland — which has become the main point of contention for Eurosceptic Tory MPs. Downing Street acknowledged that the legal withdrawal treaty had already been finalised and that reopening the text could lead to other countries adding their own demands: France wants more access to Britain’s fisheries while Spain has demands over Gibraltar.
Instead Mrs May is thought to be seeking clarifications or assurances from the EU to try to persuade Tory MPs that the backstop will not be permanent, but she knows that anything that is not legally binding is unlikely to sway opinion.
The prime minister held talks over the weekend with Donald Tusk, European Council president, Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, Leo Varadkar, Irish prime minister, and Angela Merkel, German chancellor, to assess the scope for tweaks to the Brexit deal.
Mrs May and Mr Smith had agreed to wait until Monday to assess the parliamentary arithmetic, amid hopes that Tory MPs might return from a weekend in their constituencies in a different frame of mind.