May will fall with­out deal, warns EU

The Press - - World -

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.

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker is des­per­ate to keep Theresa May in Down­ing Street.

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