Parliament will have to decide what to do next if MPs do not approve Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU, one of her ministers said today.
International Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox said its only chance of getting through a Commons vote was if the Irish border backstop issue was resolved first.
Fox, a committed Brexiteer, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that removing the whip to give MPs a free vote could be one way forward.
But he said he remains opposed to a second referendum as it would deepen divisions over Brexit and could pose constitutional problems.
A narrow vote to remain on a lower turnout than the 2016 EU referendum would spark protests by Brexit supporters, he said.
Fox added: “People like me will be immediately demanding that it’s best of three. Where does that end up?”
He said discussions would go on over the Christmas holidays to try and make the backstop option acceptable to all sides.
The Northern Ireland backstop in the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU is a legally-binding customs arrangement with the EU.
It would be activated only if a future deal cannot be reached that avoids the return of a hard border in Ireland.
But opponents, including Tory Brexiteers and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, say they will not vote for the deal as the backstop could become indefinite.
They say this would throw up a permanent regulatory barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country and could not be ended without EU approval.
Fox said that the EU clearly understood the problem and both sides needed to find a solution that that would remove MPs’ concerns.
He suggested that if this could not be done, it was not be worth putting it to a Commons vote ‘knowing it would be rejected.’
If the deal fails to get through, Mrs May insists the only other option is for the UK to leave with no deal on March 29 next year.
But MPs on all sides say there are alternatives to a hard Brexit, including a softer Brexit based on Norway’s relationship with the EU or a Canada-style trade deal, or a referendum.
There is growing support in Parliament for organising a so-called People’s Vote if Mrs May’s deal is rejected, although the Prime Minister has repeatedly ruled that out.
Reports in today’s Sunday Times that a number of government ministers are plotting to force a second referendum were swiftly denied by No.10.
As pressure grows for a second poll to solve the deadlock, Mrs May criticised former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for it, accusing him of ‘undermining Brexit.’
She postponed the Commons vote on her deal last week after admitting it was heading for defeat, but said it would go ahead in January.