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Focus must be on the Brexit deal on offer

With just eleven days left for Theresa May to persuade sufficient numbers of MPs to back her EU withdrawal plan, the consensus seems to be that she faces an uphill battle.

Various figures are being bandied around about the likely strength of the Tory rebellion with some predicting that 100 Conservative MPs could vote no although only a handful have publicly stated their intentions.

Among those who have declared they will vote against are Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, both former Northern Ireland secretaries of state.

They are on a different page entirely from the current incumbent, Karen Bradley, who has emerged as a vocal supporter of Theresa May's deal.

This is hardly a surprise. Mrs Bradley is seen as a close ally of the prime minister, who promoted her to the sensitive Northern Ireland post despite the MP's lack of knowledge about the deep-seated political divisions that exist.

For her part, the secretary of state has been on a tour of local towns to urge support for the withdrawal deal, particularly among the business community.

There is no doubt many farmers and business owners can see the opportunities offered by the agreement and this point has been seized upon by Mrs Bradley who said the draft deal would place Northern Ireland in an 'unrivalled' global position to attract future foreign investment.

She also underlined the message that a no deal would threaten jobs and everyone can now see that such an outcome would be disastrous in many respects.

Fear of a no deal is one of Mrs May's key weapons in swaying wavering MPs, a point that was reinforced by European Council President Donald Tusk at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires yesterday.

He said that what is on offer is the best deal possible and warned MPs that voting down the withdrawal agreement will lead to either a no deal Brexit or no Brexit at all.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney backed up this position, tweeting that the EU 'are not bluffing on this', adding 'there is no other deal on offer'.

Despite this firm message, opponents of the plan are casting around for alternatives.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has hinted that her party could be open to a Norway-plus arrangement but Mrs May has ruled this out, saying it would see freedom of movement continue.

We can expect to see all sorts of desperation tactics and ill thought through ideas in the days ahead.

But the fact remains that there is only one deal on the table and that should be the focus of attention.

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