Theresa May suffered a fresh Brexit blow today as a government whip quit to vote against her Brexit deal.
Gareth Johnson said he was resigning as he had to put his ‘loyalty to country above loyalty to government’.
There are fears the departure could be the first of a series, despite the PM launching a desperate last-ditch bid save her plan – warning that voting it down would be the ‘height of recklessness’ and might mean staying in the EU.
In his letter to Mrs May this afternoon, Mr Johnson said he believed the package thrashed out with Brussels would be ‘detrimental to the national interest’ and set Northern Ireland ‘apart from the rest of the UK’.
‘I have therefore decided the time has come to place my loyalty to my country above my loyalty to the government,’ he wrote.
Government sources tried to play down the resignation, pointing out that he represents the heavily Leave-supporting Dartford constituency.
Hours earlier, Mrs May had appealed for Tory Eurosceptics to look at the mounting revolt by Remainers, and realise that Parliament is ready to block the country from crashing out.
In a speech on the eve of the titanic Commons showdown, Mrs May said it was clear some politicians would use ‘every device’ to stop Brexit happening.
Underlining the dangers of the crisis wracking Westminster, she urged MPs to consider the ‘consequences’ of their actions for people’s faith in democracy.
Mrs May also pointed to a letter from EU commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and council president Donald Tusk published today, which insists the Irish border backstop – the most controversial part of the Brexit deal – will only be ‘temporary’.
‘We have secured valuable new clarifications and assurances,’ Mrs May said, while admitting that the commitment ‘did not go as far’ as some MPs wanted.
The desperate entreaty came as tensions escalate in Westminster ahead of the vote on the Brexit package she has thrashed out with Brussels.
Mrs May looks to be on track for a catastrophic defeat – with frantic manoeuvring under way over what happens next.
A dozen Tory former ministers including Boris Johnson have urged wavering colleagues to stand firm against the deal, saying leaving on World Trade Organisation terms would not be a disaster.
But Remainers from across parties are plotting an extraordinary bid to seize control from the government if it tries to push ahead with a no-deal Brexit. Conservative MP Nick Boles today confirmed plans to tear up Commons rules so MPs could propose legislation – something the government currently has power over.
Ministers fear Speaker John Bercow would help the rebellion. Last week he flouted procedural convention to select an amendment from Tory former minister Dominic Grieve which attempts to speed up the process for the Government to reveal what it will do next if the PM’s Brexit deal is rejected.
Speaking in Stoke-on-Trent, Mrs May said she now believes if her deal is defeated, MPs blocking Brexit is more likely than leaving without a deal.
She said failure to pass her package could mean crashing out – but there was a ‘bigger risk’ of not leaving the EU at all.
Mrs May rejected the idea that alternatives to her Withdrawal Agreement were available.
‘Nobody has yet come up with an alternative Brexit deal that is negotiable and that delivers on the result of the referendum,’ she said.
‘The only deal on the table is the one MPs will vote on tomorrow night.
Another Labour MP declared he would vote for Theresa May’s Brexit deal today in defiance of orders from Jeremy Corbyn.
Sir Kevin Barron said the deal was the only way to deliver on the referendum and avoid a no deal Brexit on March 27.
The Rother Valley MP represents one of the strongest Leave-supporting parts of the country and he is among a number of Labour MPs causing a deep split in the party.
Labour’s policy is to push for a general election if the Prime Minister loses the meaningful vote on Tuesday and Mr Corbyn has ordered his side to vote No.
There will not be enough Labour votes to save Mrs May in the Commons tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said there should just be a simple vote on the deal tomorrow night, with amendments voted on later to avoid muddying the result.
In a message to Remainer rebels, she said: ‘You can take no deal off the table by voting for that deal. ‘If no deal is as bad as you believe it is, it will be the height of recklessness to do anything else.’
Mrs May brushed aside suggestions that the EU might extend the two-year withdrawal process under Article 50 to the summer to allow more time for the UK to settle its position.
‘We are leaving on March 29,’ she said. ‘I have been clear I don’t believe we should be extending Article 50 and I don’t believe we should be having a second referendum.’
Mrs May said the letters from the EU carried ‘legal force’ and ‘make absolutely clear that the backstop is not a threat or a trap’.
She added: ‘I fully understand that the new legal and political assurances which are contained in the letters from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker do not go as far as some MPs would like.
‘But I’m convinced that MPs now have the clearest assurances that this is the best deal possible and is worthy of their support.’
The PM again ruled out a permanent customs union with the EU – floated by some MPs as a potential compromise that could command a Parliamentary majority.
‘I have always been clear that we will not be in the customs union, because being in the customs union has with it other aspects which are not what people voted for,’ she said.
Mrs May also offered an olive branch to Labour MPs who might consider backing her deal with an appeal over workers’ rights and environmental standards.
She said: ‘I could not have been clearer that far from wanting to see a reduction in our standards in these areas, the UK will instead continue to be a world leader.
‘We have committed to addressing these concerns and will work with MPs from across the house on how best to implement them, looking at legislation where necessary to deliver the best possible results for workers across the UK.’
Mrs May added that while no-deal remained a serious risk, ‘having observed events at Westminster over the last seven days it is now my judgment that the likely outcome is a paralysis in Parliament that risks there being no Brexit’.