May prepares for Brussels dash to save Brexit deal

Theresa May is preparing for a last-minute dash to Brussels to try to save her Brexit deal, amid claims that she might have to sacrifice her premiership to win over Conservative Eurosceptic rebels.

Mrs May’s allies said the prime minister’s plane was on standby at RAF Northolt to take her to talks intended to secure EU concessions on her exit deal, ahead of a crucial “meaningful vote” in the Commons on Tuesday.

Matt Hancock, health secretary and an ally of the prime minister, insisted on Sunday that defeat was “not inevitable”, but senior Tories admit Mrs May could be heading for another heavy loss on Tuesday. The first vote on her deal, in January, resulted in a record defeat for the prime minister.

“Nobody knows what would happen in everything that followed,” Mr Hancock told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme. “There would be total uncertainty.”

Although Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, offered some new legal assurances on the Brexit deal last Friday, aimed at reassuring Britain that the contentious Irish backstop — which aims to prevent a hard border in Ireland, would not be permanent, they have not gone far enough to satisfy Mrs May’s critics.

Following Mr Barnier’s offer, the two negotiating teams led by the UK’s Olly Robbins and the EU’s Sabine Weyand continued talks in Brussels over the weekend.

A diplomatic note sent to EU ambassadors on Friday, and seen by the FT, said Brussels remained “open to further workable ideas from the UK” over the backstop.

It also made clear that the EU’s offer to give legal assurances over the arrangements for Northern Ireland was “fully consistent with the withdrawal agreement which will not be reopened”.

“Discussions at the technical level will continue over the coming days to find a solution. Political level meetings are to be confirmed,” the note said.

The Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday reported Tory Eurosceptics saying they might only support the deal if Mrs May promised to step down as prime minister, clearing the way for a Brexiter to take over to handle talks on a future UK/EU trade deal.

Mrs May has already indicated she will not lead the Tories into the next election, scheduled for 2022. But her team still hopes that if she can secure a Brexit deal she will have political space to deliver some domestic political reforms.

The pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group and the Democratic Unionist party are so far refusing to yield, in spite of Mrs May’s warnings last week that if they block her deal then they could end up losing Brexit altogether.

Steve Baker, a leading ERG figure, and Nigel Dodds, DUP deputy leader, write jointly in the Sunday Telegraph that Britain must leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal.

However Mrs May has said that if the deal was rejected on Tuesday she would give MPs the chance to first vote on excluding a no-deal exit and then on delaying Brexit and extending the Article 50 exit process.

Much now hangs on whether Mrs May can extract further eleventh-hour legal changes to the exit deal and whether that will allow Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, to change his advice to MPs that the current deal could “trap” Britain in a customs union.

Mr Cox told MPs in January that the backstop — which creates a “temporary” customs union to avoid a hard border in Ireland if no trade deal is in place — could “endure indefinitely”.

He told the Mail on Sunday that he would not change his advice unless the legal changes agreed by Brussels were substantial. “My professional reputation is far more important to me than my reputation as a politician,” he said.

Mr Cox confirmed he had been working on an arbitration mechanism that would give Britain “the unilateral right to trigger the process that would lead to our exit from the backstop” — it was rejected by Mr Barnier last week.

“It’s the reason why some EU officials don’t like it, it works,” Mr Cox said.


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