Theresa May’s Brexit deal descended into farce on Monday morning after the prime minister cancelled tomorrow’s crunch vote just minutes after Downing Street insisted it would go ahead.
In an emergency conference call with her cabinet, May told ministers that the meaningful vote on the UK’s withdrawal deal planned for Tuesday would not be going ahead.
The announcement came amid frenzied scenes at Westminster, where just minutes earlier the PM's spokesperson had insisted to journalists that the vote would be taking place.
May's decision was taken after government whips concluded they were likely to be defeated by a three-figure margin. This morning John Lamont became the 113th Tory MP to indicate they cannot support the deal.
BuzzFeed News is told May was lobbied to pull the vote by two groups of cabinet ministers over the last few days.
The first group of ministers loyal to May are said to have told her she could not survive such a heavy defeat on the key vote of her premiership and would likely have to resign if the vote went ahead.
The second group, according to sources familiar with conversations that took place last week and this weekend, consisted of ministers with leadership ambitions.
Members of this group, which includes defence secretary Gavin Williamson and international development secretary Penny Mordaunt, are said to have felt unable to vote for the deal as they know backing it would have personal ramifications in a future leadership contest.
"The ones who have never fought are now fighting," said a Whitehall source, referring to ministers who had previously stayed quiet about the deal but were now telling Downing Street to pull the vote.
"They have had Leave MPs telling them they can't walk through the lobbies and live to fight a leadership contest," the source said.
The PM is expected to return to Brussels to seek assurances over the backstop, the insurance policy against a hard border in Ireland in the withdrawal agreement that is loathed by MPs across the House of Commons.
But the EU insisted this morning that there could be no changes to the withdrawal agreement. Ireland's deputy prime minister Simon Coveney tweeted that the deal "is not going to change".
The message was repeated by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker's spokesperson, who told journalists in Brussels: "We will not renegotiate."
Senior sources from the EU and EU27 (the other 27 member states) have in recent days repeatedly told BuzzFeed News that the substance of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be changed and negotiations reopened.
The sources said the best the prime minister could hope for was some sort of statement to go alongside the political declaration that provides reassurances that the EU doesn’t want to use the backstop, and intends to negotiate a close trade relationship.
One senior EU government official asked: "Does she have a plan?"
Downing Street, ministers, and Tory headquarters have spent days expending significant political capital on promises that the vote would go ahead on Tuesday.
Asked if he was 100% sure the vote would take place on Tuesday on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, environment secretary Michael Gove replied: “Yes.”
A briefing note of “lines to take” produced by Conservative headquarters for the party’s MPs this morning told them the vote would be going ahead on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Brexit secretary Steve Barclay told The Andrew Marr Show that the vote was “100% happening”.
The pound fell as news emerged that the vote had in fact been called off.
"The government has decided Theresa May's Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour," said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, adding: "We don't have a functioning government."
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at email@example.com.
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