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Theresa May’s ministers plot a soft Brexit ahead of expected no-deal defeat

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LONDON — Conservative MPs who backed Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU when it was defeated this month are planning to ditch their previous support and try to force May to accept a closer relationship with the EU instead.

MPs who are loyal to the prime minister will back alternative plans for a softer Brexit if an amendment tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, which is designed to delay Britain’s departure and rule out a no-deal exit, wins a majority in the Commons on Monday, the Times reported.

The backbenchers believe that removing the immediate threat of a no-deal exit will weaken the prime minister’s authority to try to seek concessions on the Irish backstop in Brussels and allow them to mobilise behind a plan that commands the support of MPs from across the Commons.

The ministers are preparing to row behind plans to force May into accepting remaining within the EU customs union — a key demand of opposition parties. Senior EU figures have stated that a renegotiation of the deal is only possible if May softens her Brexit negotiating red lines.

Downing Street is desperate to prevent Cooper’s amendment passing. In theory, it could allow a bill tabled by backbench MPs through parliament which forces the prime minister to seek an extension to Article 50, although senior MPs backing the plan have private doubts that it is workable, and are looking at other amendments that might be more successful.

While the prime minister has reportedly told Cabinet ministers that she will refuse to take Britain out of the EU with no deal, Downing Street fears that publicly removing the threat of no-deal would kill any chance of securing major concessions to the backstop, as Brussels would calculate that the Commons would move to push through a softer form of exit.

But the amendment appears likely to have support from the majority of MPs, with the Labour frontbench set to back the amendment if it is selected by House of Commons speaker John Bercow tomorrow.

It even commands the support of several Remain-supporting Cabinet ministers, with Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd calling on the prime minister to have a free vote on Tuesday’s amendments.

Rudd told Newsnight on Sunday: “At the moment there is a lot of change going on. I have called for a free vote for the amendments on Tuesday, and we’ll see what position the government takes.”

She also refused to rule out the prospect of resigning in order to vote against the Cooper amendment.

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