Theresa May has pleaded with MPs to consider the interests of the country and the importance of delivering Brexit as she gave herself two weeks to try to persuade 89 hostile Tory backbenchers to support her final deal.
The prime minister said she had no Brexit plan B as she addressed a sceptical and at times hostile House of Commons in a two-and-a-half-hour debate on Monday that ran on for more than an hour before anyone was prepared to speak in her support.
While May was on her feet, Julian Smith, the chief whip, confirmed to MPs that the make-or-break vote on her controversial Brexit deal would be held on 11 December after a marathon five-day Commons debate.
Pressed as to whether she had an alternative, given the scale of political opposition against her, May instead called on MPs to consider carefully how they will vote. “I believe that it is important that when people come to that vote, they consider the interests of this country, they consider the interests of their constituents, and they consider the importance of delivering on Brexit,” she said.
May was responding to a question from Conservative pro-remain backbencher Anna Soubry, who told her: “As it currently stands, the major of honourable and right honourable members will not vote in favour of the prime minister’s deal.”
Soubry demanded to know “what is the prime minister’s plan B?” and asked whether she would follow the example of European Economic Area (EEA) member Norway “plus the single market, the customs union which some of us have been arguing for for two years”.
Earlier, a jittery cabinet held a one-hour political session in which May and other ministers discussed selling the Brexit deal to MPs – and put them under pressure by making the case for her divorce deal to a largely weary British public. Insiders said they were well aware of the task ahead of the prime minister to win the final approval vote.
A Guardian analysis says that 89 Tory MPs have publicly stated they will not, or are very unlikely to, vote for May’s final Brexit deal. “The number of MPs that there are is well understood,” a Downing Street spokesman added.
On Tuesday, May will head to Wales in the morning before going to Belfast to meet the Democratic Unionist party, whose members have already said they are likely to vote against her deal. May will also meet members of Sinn Féin and other leading parties.
A visit to Scotland is expected later in the week, which will be followed by trips in England in a week’s time, focused on selling the deal via regional and local media, after May returns from the G20 summit in Argentina on 30 November-1 December.
Cabinet ministers will be expected to come out in support of the deal, as it touches on their respective briefs, to demonstrate loyalty to an embattled May, although as many as nine members have had private conversations about pursuing a soft Brexit plan B if parliament rejects the prime minister’s Brexit deal.
Five remain-backing ministers, including the de facto deputy prime minister, David Lidington, and the chancellor, Philip Hammond, are understood to have discussed staying in a customs union permanently. A further four ministers have held one-on-one talks on a Norway plus option with Tory MP Nick Boles.
Lidington held a briefing for Labour MPs on Monday night, accompanied by May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell, on the Brexit deal, which – prior to it commencing – was interpreted to be the first of several attempts to see if it will be possible to persuade opposition members worried about the risk of a no deal Brexit to support the government.
However, No 10 played down speculation that May was prepared to participate in a primetime TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn over Brexit. One insider conceded: “There are a number of ideas that haven’t got off the ground.”
Labour repeated that Corbyn was eager to debate “the prime minister’s botched Brexit and the future of our country” but the party said it had not yet been formally or informally approached by the Conservatives or a broadcaster.
In the Commons debate, the former defence secretary Michael Fallon, normally considered loyal, said he had significant concerns about May’s Brexit deal. “Are we not being asked to take a huge gamble here: paying, leaving, surrendering our vote and our veto, without any firm commitment to frictionless trade, or the absolute right to dismantle external tariffs?” Fallon said.
Boris Johnson warned that May was at risk of losing control of her cabinet under the pressure. “It’s very hard to see how this deal can command certainty to business or anyone else, when half the cabinet are going around assuring business that the UK is effectively going to remain in the customs union and single market,” the former foreign secretary said.
It took more than an hour on Monday, and only after contributions from 32 other MPs, before May finally heard a supportive contribution, from the former education secretary, Nicky Morgan. She asked if May agreed that “it’s the easiest thing in the world for people to remain in their entrenched positions they’ve been in for the last two years?”
The prime minister issued a thinly veiled warning to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who had suggested that the UK could be trapped in a customs union with the EU if it did not allow access to its fishing waters.
May said that would be fiercely resisted: “The EU have maintained throughout this process that they want to link overall access to markets to access to fisheries,” she said.
“They failed in the withdrawal agreement and they failed again in the political declaration. It is no surprise some are already trying to lay down markers again for the future relationship. They should be getting used to the answer by now: it is not going to happen.”
A rare moment of contrition from May came when the SNP’s Philippa Whitford criticised May for saying EU nationals were able to “jump the queue” under current immigration rules last week.
May apologised, saying: “I should not have used that language in that speech.” She said she had been trying to make the point that she wanted an immigration system based not on nationality but on the skills people could offer.