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Government aides tell May they plan to quit over her Brexit deal

Pro-Brexit government aides have told Theresa May they are planning a series of resignations on Tuesday unless there are major changes to her deal, the Guardian has learned.

Mike Wood, the parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the trade secretary, Liam Fox, said he would quit his post and join leave-supporting backbenchers unless changes were made to the backstop.

A backstop is required to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland if a comprehensive free trade deal cannot be signed before the end of 2020. Theresa May has proposed to the EU that the whole of the UK would remain in the customs union after Brexit, but Brussels has said it needs more time to evaluate the proposal.

As a result, the EU insists on having its own backstop – the backstop to the backstop – which would mean Northern Ireland would remain in the single market and customs union in the absence of a free trade deal, prompting fierce objections from Conservative hard Brexiters and the DUP, which props up her government.

That prompted May to propose a country-wide alternative in which the whole of the UK would remain in parts of the customs union after Brexit.

“The EU still requires a ‘backstop to the backstop’ – effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy. And they want this to be the Northern Ireland-only solution that they had previously proposed,” May told MPs.

Raising the stakes, the prime minister said the EU’s insistence amounted to a threat to the constitution of the UK: “We have been clear that we cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom,” she added.

The MP for Dudley South was one of more than a dozen elected ministerial aides who met the prime minister last week to express their concerns about the EU withdrawal deal.

The development is a fresh blow to May’s hopes of minimising the margin of defeat in Tuesday’s parliamentary vote on the deal, with the chief whip, Julian Smith, relying on the “payroll vote” of more than 100 MPs to support the government.

Speaking on Friday, Wood said he had told May he would have to resign unless there were significant changes to the backstop. It is understood that other junior ministers have made similar representations.

He told the Guardian: “What I have indicated to the prime minister is that while I support most of the deal, I have some big issues with the backstop. If some of those aren’t addressed then I don’t think I will be able to support it.

“Clearly the ministerial code says that if I can’t support, I would have to resign. I am very much hoping that there are enough changes and reassurances by Tuesday for me to vote with the government,” he said.

Wood, whose constituency voted 71% to leave, said he had met May with two backbenchers who also expressed concerns about the backstop.

“The prime minister has had lots of meetings with lots of colleagues with a lot of different views to hear feedback,” he said.

“I want some mechanism to be in place so that we either don’t go into the backstop provisions, or if we go into it we have a clear way of getting out again. This could be achieved in a number of different ways so I will obviously look at the proposals as they are on Tuesday before I decide whether to go.”

Wood said many other junior ministers would be considering their options over the weekend.

“You can obviously see there have been a number of PPSs who have spoken in favour of the government this week. A clear majority [of them] will vote with the government on Tuesday. There are others who have a range of questions and concerns that they will want to be resolved before making their decision,” he said.

The Labour MP Virendra Sharma, who supports the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain, said: “Even a member of Liam Fox’s team doesn’t believe his boss’s protestations that this is a good deal. You can see a slow motion car crash happening in front of our eyes. It looks like the fox has been well and truly shot.”

He added: “This was all supposed to be so easy, but like everything to do with Liam Fox it seems like reality has got in the way.”

Wood’s fellow Dudley MP, Ian Austin, who represents the north of the town, is one of the few Labour MPs to have suggested May’s deal meets his party’s six tests.

Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?

Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

The prime minister will put her painstakingly negotiated agreement to the House of Commons with the odds stacked heavily against her.

She dispatched more than 30 of her ministers around the country on Friday in what Whitehall sources called a “starburst”, to sell the deal to the public, though it is MPs, not voters, who will determine its fate.

Asked whether the ministers had volunteered for the task, May’s spokesman said on Friday: “We don’t do conscription in this country.”

Downing Street has been seeking to reassure pro-Brexit MPs about the Irish backstop after legal advice published reluctantly earlier this week underlined the fact the arrangement could become “indefinite”.

The prime minister signalled on Thursday that MPs would be given a vote in 2020, when the UK will have to decide between entering the backstop, or extending the transition period, if no permanent agreement has been reached that avoids the need for a hard border.

Backbenchers tabled an amendment on Thursday night, thought to have the tacit support of the government, pledging a vote in those circumstances – and obliging the government to seek fresh reassurances from the EU27 that the backstop is not intended to last more than a year.

The Democratic Unionist party, which has effectively withdrawn its support from May’s government in protest against the backstop, rejected the compromise amendment.

May’s spokesman insisted on Friday that the meaningful vote would go ahead on Tuesday, despite growing pressure to delay it, including from the chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, Graham Brady.

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