Boris Johnson has told MPs to back his Brexit deal to avoid a no-deal departure and “move our country on” as he kicked-off a Commons showdown.
Two crucial votes on Tuesday evening will determine whether the Prime Minister will be able to live up to his “do or die” commitment to take the UK out of the European Union by the October 31 deadline.
MPs will cast their initial vote on the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) before being asked to back his accelerated timetable to hurry the legislation through Parliament.
The PA news agency understands that Mr Johnson is considering pulling the entire Bill if his timetable is rejected.
And Downing Street was warning that defeating the plan would increase the chances of leaving without a deal.
Opening the debate, Mr Johnson told the Commons that the parliamentary defeat he suffered on Saturday meant he has been forced to “accelerate our preparations” for a no-deal Brexit.
“Today we have the opportunity to put all that right because if this House backs this legislation, if we ratify this new deal – which I believe is profoundly in the interest of our whole United Kingdom and our European friends – we can get Brexit done and move our country on,” the PM continued.
“And we can de-escalate those no-deal preparations immediately and turn them off next week and instead concentrate on the great enterprise of building a new relationship of the closest co-operation and friendship, as I said on Saturday, with our European neighbours.
“If we do this deal, if we pass this deal and the legislation that enables it, we can turn the page and allow this country and this Parliament to begin to heal and unite.”
Ministers have insisted they are confident they have the numbers to get the Bill through the Commons, despite their defeat in Saturday’s special sitting.
But a major hurdle follows over their plans to fast-track it through the lower House in three days, potentially paving the way for the Lords to consider it over the weekend.
The PM’s deadline could be derailed if the “programme motion” setting out the timetable for the Bill’s passage through the Commons is rejected.
Many MPs are deeply unhappy that there is so little time for detailed scrutiny of a such an important Bill, which runs to 110 pages with another 124 pages of explanatory notes.
The PM’s official spokesman refused to comment on alternative plans if the programme motion falls, but made a stark warning.
“Voting down the programme motion risks handing control over the situation to the European Union and therefore making no-deal more likely,” he added.
A programme motion is thought to have only been defeated once before – on House of Lords reform in 2012 – and the Bill was then scrapped.
Donald Tusk gave some reassurance to MPs that a requested extension to Article 50 would be treated with “all seriousness” as he consults with EU leaders who could block the move.
“It is obvious that the result of these consultations will very much depend on what the British Parliament decides, or doesn’t decide,” the European Council president said.
“We should be ready for every scenario. But one thing must be clear: as I said to Prime Minister Johnson on Saturday, a no-deal Brexit will never be our decision.”
The new Brexit deal must also win backing from the European Parliament but its Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said problems affecting EU nationals in the UK must first be solved to prevent “another Windrush scandal”.
As his time as European Commission president comes to a close, Jean-Claude Juncker said it has “pained” him to spend so much time dealing with Brexit, which he described as “a waste of time and a waste of energy”.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier also told the European Parliament that “this is the only possible agreement”, signalling it is the last deal any PM can broker.
Rory Stewart, who was among the 21 rebels against no-deal exiled from the Tories, suggested he could back the WAB but not back the programme motion.
Failure to get the motion through would open up the prospect that Mr Johnson will be forced to accept another lengthy delay to Britain’s departure – something he has vowed not to do.
The first vote on Tuesday will be on the Bill’s “in principle” second reading.
Despite the opposition of the DUP over arrangements for Northern Ireland, ministers believe they have the support of pro-Leave Labour rebels and former Tory MPs now sitting as independents who would rather leave with Mr Johnson’s deal than no deal at all.
If it passes under the proposed timetable the Bill would then move to the committee stage – which will continue on into Wednesday – when MPs will have the opportunity to put down amendments.
Labour-backed amendments are expected to include attempts to keep the UK more closely aligned with the EU through a customs union and to stage a second referendum.
Both are bitterly opposed by the Government.