Theresa May will bring her Brexit deal back to parliament to be voted on before 21 January, Downing Street has said.
The prime minister mentioned the deadline, enshrined in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, in her speech on Monday announcing her decision to postpone the Commons vote.
It was unclear whether that date was binding as the section of the legislation she mentioned was meant to apply only if her deal was rejected or if no deal had been done.
May’s official spokesman said on Tuesday: “We will be keeping with the spirit of the act, and by doing so the government will ensure that the withdrawal agreement is brought back to the house before 21 January.”
With parliament scheduled to sit until Thursday next week, he did not rule out a vote taking place in the final few days before Christmas. “We want to ensure we work as quickly as possible to resolve this. Clearly what we will be guided by is getting the reassurances that the house needs.”
The spokesman said May’s breakfast meeting with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, on Tuesday was “productive” and the pair had agreed to “work together to find a way through”.
He said: “While the leaders agreed that the backstop was only ever intended to be temporary, the prime minister set out the concerns held by many about it in the UK. She discussed the need for additional reassurances on this point, in order for the deal with the EU to pass the House of Commons.”
May’s flying visit to The Hague was the first stop on a whistle-stop diplomatic tour during which she will meet Angela Merkel in Berlin and then the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the council president, Donald Tusk, in Brussels later on Tuesday.
The cabinet will meet on Wednesday afternoon with a focus on no-deal preparedness, but the spokesman did not rule out additional travel if No 10 believed it would help advance May’s cause.
Tusk has announced there will be a session on article 50 – the Brexit process – at this week’s meeting of the European council in Brussels. Downing Street is still in consultations about what that is likely to entail, but May will be keen to make the case directly to EU leaders that she needs additional reassurances.
Downing Street has not ruled out seeking to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement – an option that is flatly rejected by Juncker – but is clear that it could have disadvantages, reopening other fraught issues such as fishing rights or Gibraltar.
Instead No 10 appears to be seeking non-legally binding reassurances, though May’s spokesman, echoing a phrase used by Labour to characterise its own hard-fought Brexit position, said: “No options are off the table.”
He pointedly refused to reject criticisms by the Andrea Leadsom of the role played by the Speaker, John Bercow, in shaping the Brexit debate. The leader of the Commons accused Bercow of being biased.
“Established convention is that the Speaker must remain politically impartial at all times. It’s for the house to determine whether or not this is the case,” the spokesman said.
Leadsom told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “He’s [Bercow] made his views on Brexit on the record, and the problem with that of course is that the chair’s impartiality is absolutely essential.”