Theresa May entering the back door of Downing Street from her car after firing the starting gun on Britain’s participation in the European Parliament elections
Theresa May fired the starting gun on Britain’s participation in the European Parliament elections today as the country headed for a lengthy Brexit delay.
Government officials formally triggered the elections for May 23 – at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £100 million – while the Tories launched a search for candidates.
Only last month, the Prime Minister said it would be ‘unacceptable’ to take part in the poll, almost three years after the vote to leave the EU.
It is the clearest indication yet that Britain is facing a lengthy delay to Brexit, probably until the end of the year or possibly even longer.
Mrs May will today travel to Berlin and Paris for talks as she tries to persuade EU leaders to agree to only a short extension of Article 50 – to June 30 – in order to avoid a No Deal Brexit on Friday.
She will formally make her request at an emergency EU summit in Brussels tomorrow.
However, diplomatic sources believe the EU is likely to insist on a much longer delay. Today it was reported EU leaders would consider a nine-month extension until the end of the year, or a 12-month extension until March 2020.
At the same time, MPs could vote today to force Mrs May to seek a longer extension.
Cross-party legislation compelling Mrs May to seek a delay to avoid No Deal was expected to clear Parliament tonight. MPs were told they will be able to debate – and potentially vote on – the length of delay she should ask for.
Today the Cabinet Office formally triggered European Parliament elections for May 23, while the Conservative Party launched a frantic search for candidates, with applicants told they need to submit their names by 5pm today.
The decision to hold the elections is an embarrassment for Mrs May. But the EU has made clear it will not approve any delay unless the elections are held.
An email (left) sent this evening by Tory head of candidates Gareth Fox said Britain would take part in the European elections. But party chairman Brandon Lewis then rowed back on his remarks (right)
Tory chairman Brandon Lewis (pictured outside the Cabinet office on April 4) insists the Government still hopes to avoid elections by passing a Brexit deal before May 22. Pictured right: German Chancellor Angela Merkel plays with a handball given to her by the German Handball Federation’s president today
The Cabinet Office said it was ‘not inevitable’ the elections would take place if a deal can be struck in the coming weeks.
But, in a letter to potential Tory candidates, Conservative Central Office said: ‘Due to the current situation, we will be contesting the European Parliament elections on May 23.’
Then, in a later email, Tory chairman Brandon Lewis U-turned on the remarks, which were made by the party’s head of candidates Gareth Fox. He suggested Mr Fox’s email was only outlining what would happen if this ambition is not achieved.
‘The Government’s clear policy is to leave the EU with a deal and for the necessary legislation to pass before 22 May so that the UK does not need to participate in European Parliamentary elections,’ he said.
‘However, if the UK had not ratified the Withdrawal Agreement and were still a Member State of the European Union on 23 May, we would be under a legal obligation to hold the elections.
‘With the closing date for the nominations on 24 April, it is clear that we need to make contingency plans as a Part in the event of these elections going ahead.
‘This is why Gareth Fox emailed you earlier today to outline how we ensure we are prepared for any eventuality.’
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WITH BREXIT?
MONDAY APRIL 8: LABOUR WAIT FOR BREXIT DEAL OFFER
Theresa May paved the way for a customs union deal with Labour last night as she pledged to ‘compromise’ to ensure Brexit happens.
Ministers were out in force today repeating this message but Labour said they are waiting for an offer from the PM so talks can move forward.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said ‘the ball is in the Government’s court’.
TUESDAY APRIL 9: PM’S EUROPEAN TOUR
The Prime Minister will fly meet Angela Merkel in Berlin and then on to Paris to see Emmanuel Macron as she tried to convince European leaders to back her plea to extend Article 50 until June 30.
Donald Tusk says EU leaders should demand a delay until March 31, 2020 – but Mr Macron is said to be considering forcing the UK out of the EU unless they face ‘strict’ conditions.
WEDNESDAY APRIL 10: EU SUMMIT
Another summit with EU leaders – where May will ask for a new delay beyond April 12.
May’s new plan is to strike a cross-party consensus in London and persuade EU leaders it means the deal can be delivered in time for Brexit on May 22.
She may have to accept a longer extension that means holding EU elections, as Brussels has made clear this is a red line – and will take a decision on delay without Britain and it must be unanimous.
EU officials including Michel Barnier have warned that the risk of an accidental No Deal is increasing if May arrives with no plan.
FRIDAY APRIL 12: BREXIT DAY
Britain is due to leave the EU without a deal on this date if no delay is agreed.
Conservative MP Bob Seely said the decision to hold the elections was ‘really going to wind up our voters’, while Tory Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen said a long delay would ‘give time to remove Theresa May and install someone who believes in Brexit’.
But some ministers believe Mrs May could try to cling on until the end of the year if Brexit is delayed in a final bid to secure a legacy for her time in office.
Mrs May began a round of calls to EU leaders in a bid to reassure them the UK will not be a disruptive influence if it remains in the EU for an extended period.
Today’s Cabinet meeting has been cancelled to allow her to travel to Berlin for talks with Angela Merkel.
EU diplomats reacted with alarm last week after Jacob Rees-Mogg urged ministers to be ‘as difficult as possible’ if a long extension leaves Britain ‘stuck in the EU’.
Dutch PM Mark Rutte, who spoke by phone with Mrs May, said it was vital the UK agreed to ‘sincere cooperation’ with the EU in an extended delay.
Mr Rutte said: ‘It is crucial to know when and on what basis UK will ratify the withdrawal agreement. A positive decision hinges also on assurances from UK on sincere cooperation.’
Emmanuel Macron has publicly warned that a further delay is not guaranteed. But diplomatic sources believe the French president is unlikely to succeed in persuading fellow EU leaders to push the UK out without a deal this week.
Zoltan Kovacs, the Hungarian prime minister’s spokesman, said: ‘Mr Macron’s attitude is just one of the 27 and at the end of the day there is going to be a compromise.’
Irish premier Leo Varadkar said he was ‘open to extending’ the Brexit deadline, while a British source said: ‘There is no way the EU is going to refuse a request for a delay.’
However, sources are gloomy about the prospect of Mrs May securing a ‘short’ delay. One described a delay until the end of this year as a ‘best-case scenario’.
- Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski quit the ERG – accusing the hard Brexit grouping of putting Brexit at risk. He tweeted: ‘Hardcore element of ‘unicorn’ dreamers now actually endangering Brexit.’
Bill to extend Brexit clears the Lords and is now back in the Commons
Bill to extend the Brexit process has cleared the Lords despite fierce criticism from some Tories.
Peers gave the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 5) Bill an unopposed third reading after just 10 minutes of debate.
The Bill, placing a legal requirement on the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Article 50 to prevent a no-deal, now goes back to the Commons.
Peers gave the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 5) Bill an unopposed third reading after just 10 minutes of debate (pictured)
If MPs back changes made to the legislation in the Upper House during committee stage it stands ready to become law.
Promoted by Labour’s Yvette Cooper in the Commons, the Bill squeaked through the elected House by just one vote last week.
It ran into trouble in the Lords last Thursday when opponents tried to block the measure being forced through in just one day.
Labour threatened to keep the Lords sitting all night if necessary but an agreement between Opposition and Government whips stopped that happening with extra time provided today.
Promoted by Labour’s Yvette Cooper (seen on April 3), the Bill squeaked through the elected House by just one vote last week
Lords leader Baroness Evans of Bowes Park said the Government still opposed the ‘unnecessary’ measure.
Tory former leader Lord Howard of Lympne said: ‘This appalling piece of legislation is totally misconceived.’
Lord Howard said the ‘ludicrous’ legislation aimed to constrain the Prime Minister’s exercise of the royal prerogative to make decisions on the exit date.
For Labour, Lord Goldsmith warned time was running out and it was critically important an extension was agreed before Friday.
Peers backed amendments to the Bill aimed at promoting legal certainty and avoiding the UK ‘accidentally’ dropping out with no deal if the council came back with a counter proposal.
Another change made clear that nothing in the Bill prevented the Prime Minister from ‘seeking or agreeing’ an extension, provided it was not earlier than May 22.
In the closing stages, Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Robertson of Port Ellen said it was a historic moment.
The UK was on the verge of talks which would determine the future of the country for generations to come and the Bill would play a part in that.
But Tory Lord Framlingham said it was all about ‘kicking the can down the road’ when Britain should be leaving the EU with a ‘clean break’ on Friday.
‘This Bill is telling our Prime Minister what to do, a classic case of the tail wagging the dog and of constitutional chaos,’ he said.
The Prime Minister is seeking a further Brexit delay to June 30 and EU leaders will discuss this at an emergency summit on Wednesday.
New Tory backlash as Labour return for talks
By Jason Groves and Jack Doyle
Brexit talks with Labour will resume today despite a growing Tory backlash over the prospect of a compromise deal with Jeremy Corbyn.
After four days of inaction, senior figures including Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer are expected to resume face-to-face talks in the hope of identifying a Brexit compromise.
Mr Corbyn last night struck a gloomy note, accusing Mrs May of refusing to abandon key elements of her deal.
Jeremy Corbyn slammed Theresa May’s refusal to budge off her red lines tonight after the Prime Minister met Brexiteer ministers and top Tory MPs in Downing Street
The Labour leader said: ‘We are prepared to talk and put forward our view, but talks have to mean a movement and so far there has been no change in those red lines.’
Last night it was claimed Mrs May was considering whether to take the dramatic step of offering MPs a separate vote on whether to hold a second referendum, in a bid to unblock the deal with Labour.
Sir Keir told Labour MPs at a private meeting that ministers had not yet given in to the party’s central demand that the UK must join a permanent customs union.
He said Mrs May was still of a ‘mindset’ that her deal effectively delivered a customs union ‘if only we looked a bit harder’.
EU leaders have ‘given up on Theresa May and are now negotiating with MPs directly’
As Theresa May heads to Paris and Berlin EU leaders have given up on her, it was claimed today.
The bloc’s leaders are said to be negotiating directly with MPs after the Cooper/Letwin plot grabbed control of Brexit in the Commons.
An EU diplomatic source told The Sun: ‘What’s annoying us is they’re not a real government so we don’t have any partners to properly talk to.
‘We don’t want to be demanding but we’ve got to manage the process and we don’t have another side to manage it with.
‘We have no trust in May anymore. We say we’re not negotiating with the House but we are. But how can we negotiate with all these different factions?’
However, Tory sources insisted a cross-party deal was still possible. ‘We’re a million miles from this thing collapsing,’ said one source familiar with the talks.
The Prime Minister warned last week that a deal with Labour might be the ‘only way’ to secure an orderly Brexit next month, after MPs voted to reject her own plans for a third time. She had hoped that a deal would be in place in time for her to present to EU leaders at an emergency summit in Brussels.
The two sides are said to be close to agreement on a deal that would ensure the UK remains in step with EU laws on workers’ rights and the environment after Brexit. But there is no agreement yet on possible customs arrangements.
And Brexiteer ministers are urging Mrs May to reject Labour’s demand to place a ‘Boris lock’ on any soft Brexit compromise, which would prevent a future Tory leader tearing it up.
A Tory source said Commons leader Andrea Leadsom clashed with Mrs May over the issue yesterday during talks in No10 with ministers including Liz Truss.
Solicitor General Robert Buckland said Mrs May was right to seek a deal with Mr Corbyn and predicted: ‘Something approximating a customs arrangement or customs union would be the most likely outcome.’ And former Tory minister Nick Boles said there was a ‘pretty reasonable chance of a deal’, adding: ‘On the substance they’re quite a lot closer than perhaps people might imagine.’
Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, said the political declaration could be amended ‘extremely quickly’ if necessary to include a customs union.
But senior ministers continued to warn against signing up to such a deal. Asked if the Government was poised to agree a customs union, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox replied ‘no’.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said the talks with Labour were ‘not the only show in town’, adding: ‘I have always believed that a customs union was not the best deal for the UK.’
Boris Johnson said: ‘If the UK were to commit to remaining in the customs union, it would make a total and utter nonsense of the referendum result. To agree to be non-voting members of the EU, under the surrender proposed by Jeremy Corbyn cannot, must not and will not happen.’