Theresa May has pleaded with MPs to consider the interests of the country and the importance of delivering Brexit as she gave herself two weeks to try to persuade 89 hostile Tory backbenchers to support her final deal.
The prime minister said she had no Brexit plan B as she addressed a sceptical and at times hostile House of Commons in a two-and-a-half-hour debate on Monday that ran on for more than an hour before anyone was prepared to speak in her support.
But she faced an unexpected blow when Donald Trump later said it sounded like a “great deal for the EU” that would stop the UK trading with the US.
The US president told reporters outside the White House: “I think we have to take a look at, seriously, whether or not the UK is allowed to trade.
“Because, you know, right now, if you look at the deal, they may not be able to trade with us … I don’t think that the prime minister meant that. And, hopefully, she’ll be able to do something about that.”
While May was speaking in the Commons, Julian Smith, the chief whip, confirmed to MPs that the make-or-break vote on her controversial Brexit deal would be held on 11 December after a marathon five-day Commons debate.
Pressed as to whether she had an alternative, given the scale of political opposition against her, May instead called on MPs to consider carefully how they will vote.
“I believe that it is important that when people come to that vote, they consider the interests of this country, they consider the interests of their constituents, and they consider the importance of delivering on Brexit,” she said.
May was responding to a question from Conservative pro-remain backbencher Anna Soubry, who told her: “As it currently stands, the majority of honourable and right honourable members will not vote in favour of the prime minister’s deal.”
Soubry demanded to know: “What is the prime minister’s plan B?” And she asked whether May would follow the example of European Economic Area member Norway “plus the single market, the customs union which some of us have been arguing for for two years”.
May has repeatedly insisted that the UK would be able to negotiate and conclude trade deals with countries around the world after Brexit and she and other ministers have made no secret of the fact they hope in particular to reach an agreement with the US.
However, Trump’s intervention has clouded the issue. It was not clear what he meant by the UK being unable to trade with the world’s largest economy after the UK leaves the EU, although some suggested he was referring to the fact that the UK would not be able to strike trade deals with the US after the Brexit deal was concluded because of the terms of the agreement.
Rebutting Trump’s comments, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The political declaration we have agreed with the EU is very clear we will have an independent trade policy so that the UK can sign trade deals with countries around the world including with the US.”
No 10 pointed out that the US trade representative had already begun a consultation on a future trade deal with the UK, again suggesting Trump’s analysis was incorrect.
“We have already been laying the groundwork for an ambitious agreement with the US through our joint working groups, which have met five times so far,” the spokesman said.
Earlier, a jittery cabinet held a one-hour political session in which May and other ministers discussed selling the Brexit deal to MPs – and how to make the case for her divorce deal to a largely weary British public. Insiders said they were well aware of the task ahead of May to win the final approval vote.
A Guardian analysis says that 89 Tory MPs have publicly stated they will not, or are very unlikely to, vote for May’s final Brexit deal. “The number of MPs that there are is well understood,” a Downing Street spokesman added.
On Tuesday, May will head to Wales in the morning before going to Belfast to meet the Democratic Unionist party, whose members have already said they are likely to vote against her deal. May will also meet members of Sinn Féinand other leading parties.
A visit to Scotland is expected later in the week, which will be followed by trips in England in a week’s time, focused on selling the deal via regional and local media, after May returns from the G20 summit in Argentina on 30 November-1 December.
Cabinet ministers will be expected to come out in support of the deal, as it touches on their respective briefs, to demonstrate loyalty to an embattled May, although as many as nine members have had private conversations about pursuing a soft Brexit plan B if parliament rejects the prime minister’s Brexit deal.
Five remain-backing ministers, including the de facto deputy prime minister, David Lidington, and the chancellor, Philip Hammond, are understood to have discussed staying in a customs union permanently. A further four ministers have held one-on-one talks on a Norway plus option with Tory MP Nick Boles.
Trump’s remarks emerged as Lidington and May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, were briefing Labour MPs on May’s deal. One MP present said that Barwell looked “crestfallen”, but he insisted that lots of other countries had thought the Brexit deal was a good one.
May told the Sun newspaper that she would would be prepared to take on Jeremy Corbyn in a TV debate over Brexit on Sunday 9 December, the first time she has been willing to debate the Labour leader live on television. “I am going to be explaining why I think this deal is the right deal for the UK – and yes, I am ready to debate it with Jeremy Corbyn,” she said.
Labour repeated that Corbyn was eager to debate “the prime minister’s botched Brexit and the future of our country” but the party said it had not yet been formally or informally approached by the Conservatives or a broadcaster.
In the Commons debate, the former defence secretary Michael Fallon, normally considered loyal, said he had significant concerns about May’s Brexit deal.
“Are we not being asked to take a huge gamble here: paying, leaving, surrendering our vote and our veto, without any firm commitment to frictionless trade, or the absolute right to dismantle external tariffs?” Fallon said.
Boris Johnson warned that May was at risk of losing control of her cabinet under the pressure.
“It’s very hard to see how this deal can command certainty to business or anyone else, when half the cabinet are going around assuring business that the UK is effectively going to remain in the customs union and single market,” the former foreign secretary said.
It took more than an hour on Monday, and only after contributions from 32 other MPs, before May finally heard a supportive contribution, from the former education secretary, Nicky Morgan.
She asked if May agreed that “it’s the easiest thing in the world for people to remain in their entrenched positions they’ve been in for the last two years?”