Theresa May has twice refused to rule out dropping part of her Brexit plans to avoid a second humiliating defeat in the Commons next week.
Rebels who gave the Prime Minister a bloody nose to secure a “meaningful vote” on the withdrawal deal have warned her she faces another loss over enshrining the exact Brexit date in British law.
It gives Ms May just a few days to decide whether to press ahead with the move – which she announced in a blaze of publicity last month – or accept she is beaten and pull back.
Arriving in Brussels for the EU summit, she twice ducked questions asking if she was preparing to “compromise”, to avoid a repeat of Wednesday night’s debacle.
Instead, she insisted the EU Withdrawal Bill was “making good progress”, with the Government having won 35 of the 36 votes staged so far.
“So the Bill is making good progress and we are on course to deliver Brexit, we’re on course to deliver on the vote of the British people,” the Prime Minister added.
Meanwhile, Downing Street said there were “no plans to withdraw the amendment” to put the exit date on the face of the Bill, before a vote next Wednesday.
At the start of the week, the No 10 spokesman insisted the amendment would go ahead – a firm commitment no longer being given.
Pro-EU Tories fear putting the date – 11pm, on March 29, 2019 – on the statute book will make it harder for Parliament to force a change of course and prevent a no deal exit, if the talks fail.
Significantly, the rebels are the same Conservative MPs who defeated the Prime Minister on Wednesday, to give Parliament an effective veto on the withdrawal terms.
When Ms May announced her amendment to put the Brexit date on the Bill, she described it as firm proof she would not “tolerate” dissent – making it hard to climb down.
But Dominic Grieve – who led Wednesday’s revolt – said: “If the Government comes back with that date I’m sure the Government will be defeated.” The warning was echoed by Ken Clarke, a second dissenter.
In the Commons, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, did not answer when his Labour shadow, Keir Starmer, asked whether he would drop the “ill-conceived gimmick”.
In Brussels, Ms May sought to dismiss the significance of Wednesday’s defeat – even though it could help Parliament delay Brexit if the talks go badly.
“We’ve won 35 out of 36 votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill, it is making good progress in the House of Commons and that means we are on course to deliver on the sovereign vote of the British people and that’s what we’ll be doing,” she said.
The claim ignores the fact that the Government were forced to accept another amendment – to limit the use of so-called “Henry VIII powers” – to avoid a likely defeat.
Mr Davis warned the “meaningful vote” defeat left “a very compressed timetable” for implementing Brexit by the departure date, with a “smooth and orderly exit”.
“We will have to think about how we respond to it, but as always we take the House of Commons’ view seriously and will continue to do so,” he told MPs.