May will fall without deal, warns EU
BRITAIN: Jean-Claude Juncker fears Theresa May’s government could collapse next week if Brexit talks remain deadlocked, The Daily Telegraph has learnt.
The European Commission president will extend the deadline for the British prime minister to settle a dispute over the Irish border to the eve of an EU leaders’ summit next Thursday to maximise her chances of success.
May’s own MPs warned her she could be toppled ‘‘within weeks’’ if she came back from Brussels next week without an agreement that trade talks could begin. Potential leadership candidates, including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and David Davis, are said to be in a state of readiness in case of a coup, though none of them is prepared to wield the knife.
Support from Eurosceptic Tory MPs is ebbing away after May’s disastrous trip to Brussels on Tuesday, when she was forced to abandon talks over a withdrawal agreement after an angry intervention from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster.
Yesterday she was the victim of a coordinated backbench attack in the Commons, with one Conservative MP offering to help her with negotiations if she cannot ‘‘sort them out’’ herself. As infighting escalated, 20 Tory MPs wrote to May accusing pro-Brexit colleagues of being ‘‘highly irresponsible to seek to dictate terms which could lead to the UK walking away’’.
The air of chaos around the prime minister increased when Philip Hammond, the chancellor, admitted that the cabinet had still not agreed on a target for the ‘‘end state’’ of Brexit, amid growing concerns May is trying to steer the country towards a ‘‘soft’’ Brexit.
May phoned Foster and Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, yesterday, but failed to make a breakthrough over the disputed issue of the Irish border, which must be settled as part of the withdrawal agreement before the European Council can sanction trade talks.
DUP sources said they were still ‘‘days away’’ from an agreement on the border issue, and Varadkar suggested that talks might have to carry on into the new year.
Juncker is desperate to keep May in Downing Street, as a Tory coup would not only disrupt the Brexit process but could result in Boris Johnson, a hardline Brexiteer, taking over from her, which is regarded as a worst-case scenario in Brussels.
One EU official said: ‘‘Mr Juncker wants to support Mrs May to avoid the collapse of her government. He is prepared to meet her at any time, including on days next week in the runup to the European summit.’’
The source said that the text of the disputed draft withdrawal agreement could be changed because ‘‘there’s always wriggle room’’.
Until now, Juncker had suggested that Monday was the last day on which he could meet May, having already extended a deadline that expired on Tuesday. If May fails in her mission, her next chance to get trade talks under way would be in March, by which time she could have faced a leadership challenge.
Any attempt to oust May would almost certainly come from backbench MPs.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is desperate to keep Theresa May in Downing Street.