Owen Paterson joins Tory calls for vote of no confidence in May

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Former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson has become the latest Tory MP to call for a vote of no confidence in Theresa May amid claims she is on the brink of a leadership challenge.

Westminster was awash with speculation the threshold of 48 letters needed to trigger a vote of Conservative MPs  is close to being reached following her decision to delay a Commons vote on her Brexit deal.

The warnings came as the Prime Minister earlier embarked on a whistle stop of European capitals in an attempt to secure fresh assurances to save her Brexit deal.

The BBC reported the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady – the only person who knows for certain how many letters have been submitted – has requested a meeting with Mrs May on Wednesday.

In his letter, published in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Paterson said her conduct of the Brexit negotiations “eroded trust in the Government, to the point where I and many others can no longer take the Prime Minister at her word”.

The former Northern Ireland and environment secretary and prominent Brexit supporter, said Mrs May had become a “blockage” to an agreement which Parliament and the country could support.

Owen Paterson
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson (PA)

“The conclusion is now inescapable that the Prime Minister is the blockage to the wide-ranging free trade agreement offered by (European Council president Donald) Tusk which would be in the best interests of the country and command the support of Parliament.”

Earlier, Mrs May, in Brussels for talks with Mr Tusk and European Commission President, tried to brush off reports that a confidence vote was imminent.

Asked whether she had been told of reports some Brexiteer MPs were claiming the 48 target had been reached, she said: “No, I have been here in Europe dealing with the issue I have promised Parliament I would be dealing with.”

The Prime Minister had been seeking support from key EU figures for her call for additional assurances on the Northern Ireland “backstop” in the hope it will be enough for her to get it through the Commons.

After breakfast talks with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte she flew on to Berlin for lunch with Angela Merkel before heading to Brussels.

Mr Tusk described their meeting as “long and frank”, adding: “Clear that EU27 wants to help. The question is how.”

Earlier in the day, Mr Juncker told the European Parliament that there was “no room whatsoever for renegotiation” of the Withdrawal Agreement reached between the EU and UK last month.

Mr Juncker told MEPs the agreement was the “best deal possible” and the “only deal possible”.

But he offered a glimmer of hope to Mrs May by saying there was room to give “further clarifications and further interpretations without opening the Withdrawal Agreement”.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels Mrs May acknowledged any deal with the EU would have to include a backstop to ensure there could be no return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“Whatever outcome we want, whatever relationship we want with the European Union in future, there is no deal available that doesn’t have a backstop within it,” she said.

“But we don’t want the backstop to be used and if it is, we want to be certain it is only temporary.

“It is those assurances that I will be seeking from fellow leaders over the coming days.”

Meanwhile Downing Street announced that the motion on the Brexit deal will come back to the Commons “before January 21”, with MPs expected to complete the final two days of debate before the momentous vote.

The delay to the so-called “meaningful vote” by MPs means that ratification may not be possible until as late as 10 weeks before the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.

Following a delayed Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Mrs May will travel to Dublin for last-minute talks with the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ahead of a European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Mr Varadkar told the Dail in Dublin that the UK had the power to avoid a no-deal Brexit by revoking or extending Article 50.

“While there may not be a majority for anything or at least any deal at the moment in the House of Commons, I do believe that there is a majority that the UK should not be plunged into a no-deal scenario,” he said.

“It is in their hands at any point in time to take the threat of no-deal off the table, either by revoking Article 50 or, if that is a step too far, by extending it.”

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