Boris Johnson has intensified a charm offensive to convince a majority of MPs to back his new Brexit deal in a crucial House of Commons vote on Saturday.
The UK prime minister’s hopes of getting the withdrawal agreement approved were dealt a serious blow on Thursday, when Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party came out against the package.
Analysis by the Financial Times suggests that unless Mr Johnson can persuade several Labour MPs or independent parliamentarians to support the deal, he will struggle to secure a majority during the first Saturday sitting of parliament since the 1982 Falklands conflict.
Mr Johnson is spending the day on the phone to MPs as he tries to sell his deal, said a Downing Street spokesperson, and will hold a meeting of his Cabinet at 4pm.
Nearly all of the 287 Tory MPs are expected to back the deal, including most of the 28 hardline Eurosceptics dubbed the Spartans.
However, some may refuse to back the deal unless the 10 DUP MPs endorse it. The Northern Irish party has pledged to vote down the deal because it includes a new customs border inside the UK between the region and mainland Britain.
They also object to the section that allows the Northern Ireland assembly to opt out of the proposed customs and regulatory system through a simple majority vote.
Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, tweeted: “Conservative & Unionist MPs must take a stand for the Union and join us in rejecting this deal. Internal & burdensome trade barriers will be erected within the UK without parallel consent from both unionists & nationalists. This is not Brexit.”
Without the DUP, Mr Johnson will need to win over the 23 independent Conservatives — former Tory MPs who have had the party whip removed. The majority are expected to support the prime minister.
He will also need to woo some opposition Labour MPs — a daunting prospect with party leader Jeremy Corbyn pledging to oppose the deal.
The number of rebel Labour MPs talking to Downing Street about supporting Mr Johnson’s deal has been in single figures and they are not all certain to back the agreement.
Government whips will turn the screws on Tory MPs over the next 24 hours. “Our whipping is going to be medieval,” said one official.
In a last-minute bid to secure the backing of Tory Eurosceptics, the government published legal advice on Friday morning which sets out that there are “no grounds” to believe the UK will be trapped in the new mechanism that has replaced the Irish backstop.
The advice, which has been endorsed by Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, states that the EU does not “possess a veto over the right of members of the NI assembly to withhold consent to the continued applications of those provisions”.
Speaking in Brussels after securing the deal on Thursday, Mr Johnson said: “I am very confident that when my colleagues in parliament study this agreement they will want to vote for it on Saturday and in succeeding days.
“We’ve been at this now, as I say, for three and a half years. It hasn’t always been an easy experience for the UK. It’s been long, it’s been painful, it’s been divisive. And now is the moment for us as a country to come together. Now is the moment for our parliamentarians to come together and get this thing done.”
Sir Oliver Letwin, a former Tory MP, has tabled an amendment to Saturday’s motion that would require Mr Johnson to request a Brexit extension even if his deal passes.
The amendment, which is designed to stop a no-deal Brexit, would withhold MPs formal approval for the deal until all the legislation needed to implement it passes through parliament.
The government hopes to pass the withdrawal bill by the end of next week, but some MPs fear this could take longer than the October 31 deadline and result in the UK still leaving the EU without a deal. Sir Oliver said he does not want to “let the government off the hook”.