Brussels is preparing to offer Theresa May modest concessions ahead of next week’s crunch Commons vote on her Brexit deal – but UK officials are already ‘testing the waters’ on extending the Article 50 deadline out of fears it will fail.
Sources in London and Brussels said the two sides were hopeful of reaching an agreement on a new document in which the EU would pledge to reach a comprehensive trade deal with the UK by 2021.
Allies of Mrs May believe this would prevent the need for the UK to ever enter the controversial Irish backstop, which critics fear could leave Britain trapped in a customs union indefinitely.
But even as diplomats attempt to get the EU to commit to a comprehensive trade deal, UK officials are ‘putting out feelers’ on extending Article 50, reports the Telegraph.
Culture minister Margot James yesterday became the first Government figure to suggest Brexit might have to be delayed if Mrs May’s deal is voted down.
Brussels is preparing to offer Theresa May modest concessions ahead of next week’s crunch Commons vote on her Brexit deal
Miss James told the BBC: ‘If [passing the deal] proves to be impossible then we have very little time left – we might have to extend Article 50. But I think it’s very unlikely that Parliament will actually stare down the barrel of that particular gun and I think it’s far more likely that Parliament will actually get behind the deal.’
Downing Street has repeatedly dismissed the idea of a delay in the departure date, with Mrs May’s official spokesman saying: ‘The Prime Minister has been very clear on a number of occasions that extending Article 50 is not something we are intending to do.’
But three separate EU sources told the Telegraph that officials are ‘just doing their homework’ on the possibility of extending Article 50 beyond March 29.
One insider said: ‘Until now this didn’t come up but we’re hearing it more and more.
‘We presume this is based on some conversations in Westminster, even though we are clear that the Government is formally dead against it and doesn’t want to do it.’
EU diplomats yesterday suggested Brussels was ready to offer an ‘exchange of letters’ with Mrs May, setting out the bloc’s intention to conclude a trade deal by 2021. But they suggested it will stop short of the guarantee being sought by London.
Whitehall sources said an agreement was ‘unlikely’ to be in place before the start of a five-day Commons debate on the Brexit deal tomorrow, but were hopeful it will be concluded in time for the vote, which is expected on January 15.
However, they remain concerned the EU will not go far enough to meet the demands of Eurosceptic MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party. One source said senior figures in Brussels appeared to be holding back on further concessions until after Mrs May’s deal is put to the test in the Commons next week.
But UK diplomats are ‘putting out feelers’ over extending the Article 50 deadline – out of fears May’s deal will not pass through the Commons next week. Pictured: Boris Johnson leaving a reception at No 10, part of a seven-day charm offensive
‘There is a genuine sense that the EU don’t want no-deal,’ he said. ‘The question is what they are prepared to do in order to avoid that situation – and whether it will be enough.’
Mrs May last night began a seven-day charm offensive by inviting all Tory MPs and their partners to drinks in No 10.
Those attending included vocal critics such as Boris Johnson.
But hardline Eurosceptic MPs warned they would not vote for the deal even if Mrs May achieved a breakthrough on the Irish backstop.
Sir Bill Cash, chairman of the Commons European scrutiny committee, said the backstop was ‘not the whole story by any means’.
He added: ‘Reassurances are going to get nowhere and they are certainly not going to convince anybody who’s thinking hard about this when it comes to the vote next week.’
Fellow Eurosceptic Sir John Redwood said opposition to Mrs May’s deal ‘goes way beyond the unacceptable Irish backstop and includes paying huge sums of money with nothing nailed down over the future partnership’.
Winning the support of the DUP is seen as critical if Mrs May is to have any hope of getting her deal through Parliament. Eurosceptic Sir Bernard Jenkin confirmed that many – but not all – Tory rebels would fall in line if the DUP MPs were satisfied.
‘What would change the chemistry is if the DUP came onside,’ he said. ‘If the DUP were satisfied, that would change the chemistry.
‘But there would still be a hardcore of Conservatives who are probably going to vote against this for a variety of reasons.’ Mrs May met senior DUP figures three times last week, but sources said last night there had been ‘no change’ in the party’s opposition to the deal.
The slow progress in talks with Brussels came despite a flurry of diplomatic activity by Mrs May over the Christmas period.
No 10 yesterday confirmed that the Prime Minister had been in touch with Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez in recent days.
Mrs May is expected to talk to European Commission president Mr Juncker again this week and is on standby to fly to Brussels if an agreement looks close.
From crashing out to a ‘People’s Vote’, here’s what could happen next…
MPs were busy yesterday pushing alternatives to Theresa May’s deal. Here, we examine what they want and how likely they are to get their way.
STOP NO DEAL
Who’s behind it? More than 200 MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit including former Tory Cabinet minister Dame Caroline Spelman and Labour frontbencher Jack Dromey.
What is it? In a letter to the Prime Minister, they urged her to guarantee the UK will not leave without a deal even if her proposals are defeated in next week’s vote. They are backed by businesses including Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover and employers groups such as the CBI. Separately, another group of senior MPs led by former Labour Cabinet minister Yvette Cooper will today try to amend the Finance Bill to limit the Government’s ability to raise taxes in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Some reports claimed it could lead to government ‘shutdown’ and in effect stop no deal, but experts suggest ministers could just ignore it.
Analysis: It’s clear that a majority of MPs are opposed to leaving the EU without a deal and they could make governing the country very difficult in the run-up to March 29. But no deal could still happen if Mrs May’s deal doesn’t pass, and she can’t be convinced – or forced – by Parliament to extend Article 50.
COMMON MARKET 2.0
Who’s behind it? Former Tory ministers Rob Halfon, Nick Boles, Nicky Morgan and Sir Oliver Letwin, Labour MPs Lucy Powell and Stephen Kinnock.
What is it? A rebadged version of a ‘Norway-style’ relationship with the EU. The UK would stay part of the single market so allowing open trade in goods. But we would be out of the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy.
Analysis: Proponents say it could win support in the Commons in a way Mrs May’s deal would not. But despite the rebranding, problems remain: it would mean huge contributions to the EU budget and continued free movement. And without a customs union it would not solve the Northern Ireland border problem.
MANAGED NO DEAL
Who’s behind it? The European Research Group of Tory arch-Brexiteers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Tory Cabinet minister Peter Lilley.
What is it? Brexiteers say they can limit the damage done by no deal with a series of last-minute side agreements with Brussels. Lord Lilley yesterday published a report – co-authored with Labour Leave’s Brendan Chilton – which compared worries about leaving without a deal to the unfounded fears over the Millennium Bug.
Analysis: Boris Johnson summed up the ERG position yesterday as he said leaving without a deal was the ‘closest to what people voted for’. But Lord Lilley’s report accepts that businesses could go under and says it would be ‘rash to predict that everything will be all right on the night’. It is also a big gamble for Brexiteers to assume that by voting against Mrs May’s deal they will get the Brexit they want when a second referendum, no Brexit, and a Corbyn government are also possible.
Who’s behind it? Remainers. Yesterday speeches were made by former Tory minister Sam Gyimah, who quit the Government before Christmas, and Lord Patten, the Thatcher-era Cabinet minister and former EU Commissioner.
What is it? The campaign by supporters of Remain who want to have a second referendum to overturn the result of the first. They are trying to put pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to back a second poll.
Analysis: Lord Patten dismissed the prospect of no deal, saying it would not be ‘remotely responsible’ and called Brexit ‘an act of self-harm’. Mr Gyimah said Britain should ‘step back from the brink’. Even if they get their wish, Tories who back a second referendum are wilfully ignoring the party’s manifesto and could find their future prospects in the party very limited.