Theresa May was greeted by a smattering of applause as she stood before her Conservative MPs to convince them that “this is the day” to vote for her Brexit deal in the interests of the party and the country.
But as she spoke, Eurosceptic MPs were poring over bombshell legal advice from Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, in growing horror.
It showed he had returned from Brussels negotiations unable to say the Irish backstop was temporary – and therefore could bind the UK into a permanent customs union.
May, looking weary and suffering a heavy cold, struggled to command the room. A string of supportive MPs left to brief reporters unconvincingly that the tide was turning among Conservative colleagues. “I think she will win tonight,” Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, insisted.
Nadhim Zahawi, a Brexit-supporting minister, said “many” MPs had stood up to tell the prime minister they would now support her deal but struggled to name a single one. George Freeman claimed there was a “big migration of wildebeests” towards the deal and a “collective sound of pennies dropping”.
However, even those standing up to say their minds were changed were damning in their praise. Mark Pritchard said he had been expecting a “rabbit out of the hat” but it turned out to be a “hamster” – only just enough to persuade him to back the deal.
May left the room looking unsure of herself. Asked if she had done enough to bring in the votes, she grimaced, saying: “Sufficient.”
Within minutes, it started to become clear that the European Research Group and Democratic Unionist party were turning against the EU concessions held up by May as legally binding, as they were unable to stomach Cox’s unchanged legal advice.
Hours earlier, it had looked as if May had got almost enough. But Cox gave an early hint that he would not be pressed into changing his mind under duress from No 10. In response to a suggestion that he would, he simply tweeted: “Bollocks.”
Leaving the meeting with May, Mark Francois, a vocal member of the ERG, set the tone as he pronounced he “found the prime minister’s answers wholly unconvincing”.
Another firm Eurosceptic, Andrew Bridgen, called the mood among his colleagues uncooperative. “There is a feeling that the prime minister has got a short shelf life and yet is determined to impose a withdrawal agreement so onerous it will trap and restrict whoever is the prime minister who negotiates the next phase,” he said. “The short-term political expediency is to vote it through but in the long term I think it would cause a great deal of pain.”
From May’s meeting in Portcullis House, MPs headed for the House of Commons, where Cox was due to set out his view that the deal should be backed despite his legal reservations about the permanent nature of the backstop.