Top European Union officials were told by Theresa May on Sunday that she intended to postpone the parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, some 24 hours before she informed all her cabinet ministers, BuzzFeed News has learned.
May held phone calls with the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, on Sunday, with further discussions on Monday morning, a senior EU source said.
But cabinet sources told BuzzFeed News that they only learned the vote was being pulled when May opened an emergency conference call at 11:30am on Monday by informing them that she had "reluctantly" taken the decision.
Just minutes before, a Downing Street spokesperson had told reporters that the vote was still on. And three hours earlier, environment secretary Michael Gove told BBC Radio 4's Today programme in its prime 8:10am interview slot that the vote, scheduled for Tuesday night, was definitely happening, "100%".
May's retreat was first reported by Bloomberg News while she was still on the call with her cabinet.
Downing Street insists the decision had not been taken when May spoke to EU leaders. A Number 10 spokesman said: "This is completely untrue. The decision was not taken until after her conversations with EU officials. As the PM said in the Commons yesterday, the decision was made in consultation with the cabinet."
It has been reported that May called a number of ministers over the weekend to tell them that she was "reluctantly going to postpone the vote". However, a second well-placed cabinet source said they had not been aware of May's decision until Monday.
A Whitehall source said there was significant anger within the government that ministers were sent out on the airwaves on Monday morning to insist that the vote was going ahead, when Downing Street — and the EU — knew this was not the case.
Sarah Vine, Gove’s wife, shared a post on Twitter on Monday night reporting ministers’ anger at being kept in the dark. She also appeared to agree that May was simply trying to cling on to power:
May's decision was ultimately taken after government whips concluded she was likely to be defeated by a three-figure margin.
The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that the vote could be postponed because May was going to make a final appeal to Brussels to improve the deal after being "bombarded" with warnings from senior ministers that failure to do so would lead to a catastrophic Commons defeat.
During a statement to MPs on Monday afternoon to explain her retreat, the prime minister said she would seek further assurances from the EU on the so-called backstop, the legally binding insurance policy to ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remains open in all circumstances after Brexit.
But EU and European government officials have repeatedly said that the substance of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be changed nor negotiations reopened.
“Every technical option has been explored. All political priorities have been respected. No other agreement is possible,” French minister for European affairs Nathalie Loiseau said on Tuesday.
Senior sources from the EU and its 27 remaining member states have told BuzzFeed News that the best May can hope for is a statement to go alongside the political declaration outlining the future UK–EU relationship that provides reassurances the EU doesn’t want to use the backstop, that it should not be seen as an indefinite status, and that it intends to negotiate a close trade relationship.
The prime minister has yet to say when the vote will now take place. On Tuesday morning she met the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte in the Hague before flying on to Berlin and Brussels for meetings with her counterparts. Later this week, she will join the other 27 leaders for a European Council meeting in the Belgian capital.