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Brexit: Still time to persuade MPs to back deal, says Matt Hancock

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Media captionBrexit: Can Theresa May win over MPs?

Ministers are trying to rally support for the PM’s Brexit deal across the UK but a bid to find a compromise has been dismissed by the DUP and Brexiteers.

With Theresa May widely expected to lose Tuesday’s Commons vote, No 10 has dismissed calls for it to be delayed.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said with two days of debate remaining, there was still time to win over MPs.

But a Tory backbench amendment aimed at easing concerns about the controversial “backstop” has met with criticism.

Downing Street has said the vote is still due to take place on Tuesday, despite dozens of Tories threatening to reject the deal, along with the DUP, whose support keeps Mrs May’s government in power.

But a senior minister has told the BBC “the only political common sense is to delay” it.

The minister, who preferred not to be named, said: “I’ve been asking until I am blue in the face – when we will see sense?”

“We need to find a solution and we can’t find one by Tuesday.”

Matt Hancock, Chancellor Philip Hammond, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington and Scottish Secretary David Mundell are among those trying to sell it to the public in visits across the UK.

Amid calls from some Tory and Labour MPs for the UK to pursue an even closer Norway-style relationship with the EU, Mr Lidington said it was wrong to assume there was a “magic alternative” waiting in the wings which retained the existing benefits of membership without the obligations.

“If it is not this deal which the rest of the EU says they are not willing to renegotiate, then either you crash out of the EU without any deal, without any transitional period or you revisit the referendum result of 2016 and you stay in the European Union,” he said.

The withdrawal deal negotiated between the UK and EU has been endorsed by EU leaders but must also be backed by Parliament if it is to come into force.

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Pro and anti-Brexit campaigners stage protests at Westminster

Many MPs have expressed concerns about the backstop, aimed at preventing a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU, if no trade deal is ready before the end of the post-Brexit transition period.

It would mean Northern Ireland staying aligned to some EU rules, which many MPs say is unacceptable. The UK would also not be able to leave the backstop without EU agreement.

Downing Street has dismissed reports the vote could be delayed, although the chairman of Tory backbenchers, Sir Graham Brady has said he would “welcome the vote being deferred” if it meant concerns about the backstop could be addressed.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is among cabinet ministers promoting the deal in a series of visits on Friday, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “the best thing for the country” was for MPs to back Mrs May’s deal: “I think we should win the vote, don’t pre-judge it.”

“My view is we should continue the debate. We’ve had three days, there’s two days more. I think we should make the argument, make the case and persuade people – that’s what you have Parliamentary debate for.”

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Media captionJo Johnson and Stephen Kinnock argue for and against an alternative Brexit option

And Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, on a visit to an engineering firm in Peterborough, argued that businesses want the “certainty” of a Brexit deal and urged MPs to back it, as “a way of honouring the referendum result”.

The prime minister has suggested that MPs could be “given a role” in deciding whether to activate the backstop, and on Thursday night, a Tory backbench amendment was laid down intended to do that.

The amendment – which is understood to have government support – would also give the devolved administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly, although it is currently suspended, more say in the process.

It would also press the UK and EU to agree a future trade deal within a year of the implementation period ending.

Former Northern Ireland minister Hugo Swire tabled the amendment along with Bob Neill and Richard Graham.

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Media captionTory MP Lee Rowley explains why he will be voting against Theresa May’s withdrawal deal

Mr Swire told the BBC the amendment offered something that was “better than the current situation”.

Many Tory MPs would like to see the backstop “disappear altogether or be time limited”, he said, but the European Commission had said they would not re-open negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, so the amendment was “about the nearest we feel we can probe”. He said it was aimed at “people like me, who would like to be able to support this deal but find they are unable to”.

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Media captionConfused by Brexit jargon? Reality Check unpacks the basics.

Maddy Thimont Jack, from the The Institute for Government think tank, said that any amendment would not be legally binding but was “a political expression of will from Parliament”.

Conservative Brexiteer Steve Baker dismissed the amendment: “Giving Parliament the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea is desperate and will persuade very few.”

Fellow backbencher Peter Bone told the BBC the amendment was “absolutely meaningless”: “It doesn’t change the legal text whatsoever, it’s got no binding force. For someone to change their mind over that, is implausible.”

And one senior source from the Conservative European Research Group told the BBC the amendment was “transparent and risible”.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster tweeted: “Domestic legislative tinkering won’t cut it. The legally binding international withdrawal treaty would remain fundamentally flawed, as evidenced by the attorney general’s legal advice.”

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