THE prime minister lost her voice again while she attempted to deliver her most important Brexit speech so far as her hopes of securing House of Commons approval for her EU deal received a shattering blow.
As it emerged today that Tory eurosceptics and the DUP intended to vote against Theresa May’s latest deal the PM only managed to get out the first two words of her speech as she stepped up to the despatch box, saying ‘Mr Speaker’ before coughing.
She appeared to suffer the same ailment which overshadowed her speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2017 and was immediately heckled by Labour MPs Mrs May struggled on, warning MPs that ‘Brexit could be lost’ if her deal was rejected again by MPs.
She said it was ‘absolutely imperative’ that Parliament should deliver on the decision made by voters in the 2016 referendum.
And she warned: ‘Tonight, members of this House are faced with a very clear choice. Support this deal, in which case we leave the EU with a deal, or risk no-deal or no Brexit. These are the options.’
Earlier, the so-called Star Chamber convened by the Leave-backing European Research Group found that agreements reached by the prime minister in 11th-hour talks in Strasbourg do not deliver the legally-binding changes the Commons has demanded.
And the Democratic Unionist Party — which props up Mrs May’s minority administration in the Commons — said its 10 MPs would vote against the latest deal as ‘sufficient progress has not been achieved at this time’.
Their judgment came after attorney general Geoffrey Cox told MPs that changes secured by Mrs May ‘reduce the risk’ that the UK could be trapped indefinitely in the backstop, but do not remove it altogether.
Mrs May needs to win over scores of MPs to overturn the 230-vote majority which rejected her Withdrawal Agreement in the first ‘meaningful vote’ in January.
But her prospects for doing so seemed bleak after the release of formal legal advice by Mr Cox
The attorney general said the Strasbourg agreements ‘reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained’ in the backstop if the EU fails to show good faith in negotiating a trade deal to replace it.
But he warned that the question of whether a satisfactory agreement on a future UK/EU relationship can be reached remains ‘a political judgment’.
And he said ‘the legal risk remains unchanged’ that the UK may have ‘no internationally lawful means’ of leaving the backstop without EU agreement.
In a statement to the Commons, Mr Cox told MPs: ‘There is no ultimate unilateral right out of this arrangement. The risk of that continues.
‘But the question is whether it is a likelihood, politically.’
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Cox had confirmed that ‘no significant changes’ had been secured in two months of negotiations and the government’s strategy was ‘in tatters’.
Charles Walker, vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, warned that defeat in the second ‘meaningful vote’ tonight would lead to a general election.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: ‘If it doesn’t go through tonight, as sure as night follows day, there will be a general election within a matter of days or weeks.
‘It is not sustainable, the current situation in Parliament.’
Mr Cox’s advice was issued the morning after Mrs May’s dash to Strasbourg to finalise a deal with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker which she said would reassure MPs that the backstop arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit will not become permanent.
The pair agreed a ‘joint instrument’ setting out the legally-binding nature of their promises to seek alternative arrangements to avoid the need for a backstop, as well as a ‘supplement’ to November’s Political Declaration making clear that they will seek swiftly to seal a deal on their new trade and security relationship.
Alongside these documents was a ‘unilateral declaration by the UK’ which sets out ‘sovereign action’ by which Britain could seek to have the backstop removed if talks break down.
On a day of high drama in Westminster, the Cabinet gave its backing to the package, as Mrs May told them: ‘Today is the day. Let’s get this done.’
Mr Juncker warned on Monday that if MPs voted down the deal a second time, ‘there will be no third chance’. And he said that any extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process could not go beyond May 23 unless the UK took part in European Parliament elections beginning that day.
MPs are expected to vote at 7pm, with environment secretary Michael Gove saying it is ‘make your mind up time”.