EU ready to de­lay Brexit as May makes fi­nal bid to save her deal

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Daniel Bof­fey Peter Walker Dan Sab­bagh

The EU is pre­par­ing to of­fer Theresa May a de­lay to Brexit un­til at least July if, as widely ex­pected, the prime min­is­ter fails to get her de­par­ture deal through the Com­mons this week.

As May starts the most im­por­tant week of her premier­ship with a fi­nal plea to MPs to back her pro­pos­als, of­fi­cials in Brus­sels are get­ting ready for an an­tic­i­pated re­quest from Lon­don in the com­ing weeks to ex­tend the timetable.

May will use a speech in the Brexit heart­land of Stoke-on-Trent to warn MPs that vot­ing down her plan could jeop­ar­dise de­par­ture and cause “cat­a­strophic harm” to vot­ers’ faith in pol­i­tics.

But with Labour pon­der­ing an im­mi­nent no-con­fi­dence mo­tion in the gov­ern­ment, and even loyal Con­ser­va­tive MPs pre­dict­ing a heavy de­feat for May to­mor­row, at­ten­tion is start­ing to fo­cus on what will come next.

While some To­ries want May to re­spond by propos­ing a cross-party so­lu­tion based on a softer, Nor­waystyle Brexit, the ex­pec­ta­tion is that the prime min­is­ter will make a state­ment to the na­tion say­ing she will seek fur­ther con­ces­sions from Brus­sels.

Ac­cord­ing to EU of­fi­cials, this is likely to be fol­lowed by a re­quest for more time. Once this hap­pens, a spe­cial lead­ers’ sum­mit would be con­vened by the Euro­pean coun­cil pres­i­dent, Don­ald Tusk, to push back the de­par­ture from the cur­rent date of 29 March.

The amount of ad­di­tional time would be de­ter­mined by the rea­son put for­ward for the de­lay. A brief “tech­ni­cal” ex­ten­sion is a prob­a­ble first step to al­low May time to try to re­vise her deal and put it to the Com­mons again.

An EU of­fi­cial said: “Should the prime min­is­ter sur­vive and in­form us that she needs more time to win round par­lia­ment to a deal, a tech­ni­cal ex­ten­sion up to July will be of­fered.”

Se­nior EU sources said that a fur­ther, length­ier ex­ten­sion could be of­fered at a later date should a gen­eral elec­tion or sec­ond ref­er­en­dum be called, al­though the forth­com­ing May elec­tions for

‘It’s to­tally un­true that I’m in a con­spir­acy with the Speaker’ Do­minic Grieve Con­ser­va­tive MP

the Euro­pean par­lia­ment would cre­ate com­pli­ca­tions.

In her speech to­day, May will urge MPs “to con­sider the con­se­quences of their ac­tions on the faith of the British peo­ple in our democ­racy”.

“What if we found our­selves in a sit­u­a­tion where par­lia­ment tried to take the UK out of the EU in op­po­si­tion to a re­main vote?” she is to say. “Peo­ple’s faith in the demo­cratic process and their politi­cians would suf­fer cat­a­strophic harm. We all have a duty to im­ple­ment the re­sult of the ref­er­en­dum.”

But with time run­ning out there were few signs of the shift in opin­ion hoped for by the prime min­is­ter when she postponed the vote be­fore Christ­mas. A num­ber of Con­ser­va­tive MPs said that, while the mar­gin of de­feat re­mained un­clear, the fact of the loss ap­peared in­evitable.

“I don’t think the de­feat will go into three fig­ures – I’d ex­pect be­tween 50 and 100,” said one pro-Brexit MP who strongly sup­ports May’s plan. “It de­pends in part how many Labour MPs are will­ing to vote for the deal.”

It is un­der­stood that three Labour MPs who min­is­ters had hoped would sup­port the plan after the gov­ern­ment adopted their amend­ment on work­ers rights, Caro­line Flint, Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy, will now vote against it.

A par­tic­u­larly heavy de­feat could jeop­ar­dise May’s po­si­tion, just a month after she won a no-con­fi­dence vote among Tory back­benchers. One usu­ally loyal MP said: “If the loss is large there will be some pres­sure on her to go. There is a sense she has reached the end of the road.”

An­other well con­nected Tory MP said: “In par­lia­ment, the prime min­is­ter is ba­si­cally there as the per­son

who can de­liver votes most of the time. If you can no longer do that on a sus­tained ba­sis, it makes a mock­ery of the post. That doesn’t mean that she can’t carry on. What it does mean is the job be­comes al­most cer­e­mo­nial.”

Jeremy Cor­byn said a Labour no-con­fi­dence mo­tion against the gov­ern­ment would come “soon”, but again de­clined to con­firm it would im­me­di­ately fol­low the Brexit deal be­ing de­feated. “We will ta­ble a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment at a time of our choos­ing, but it’s go­ing to be soon, don’t worry about that,” he told BBC One’s An­drew Marr Show.

Also speak­ing yes­ter­day, the Brexit sec­re­tary, Stephen Bar­clay, and the trans­port sec­re­tary, Chris Grayling, both de­clined to dis­cuss any al­ter­na­tive Brexit plan. “Let’s cross that bridge if and when it hap­pens,” Grayling told Sky News.

Cab­i­net sources said that while some min­is­ters, such as Am­ber Rudd and David Gauke, had urged May to con­sider a new ap­proach as a backup, there had been lit­tle con­crete done on this. One source said: “The view is that there’s still a lit­tle bit of steam left in the PM’s deal. If some­one is com­ing up with a brand new plan B, like Nor­way, then they’re do­ing it very qui­etly in a dark room.”

Amid the vac­uum, MPs will next week at­tempt again to seize con­trol of the process, with var­i­ous groups try­ing to push ei­ther a Nor­way-style soft Brexit or the idea of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. Sep­a­rately, a cross-party group of MPs from the Lib Dems, Labour, Con­ser­va­tives and SNP will to­day pub- lish two draft bills de­signed to pave the way for a new ref­er­en­dum giv­ing vot­ers the op­tions of back­ing the gov­ern­ment’s deal or stay­ing in the EU.

Among those be­hind the plan is the Tory for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Do­minic Grieve, who was ac­cused by some news­pa­pers yes­ter­day of lead­ing a “coup” against Brexit in al­liance with the Speaker, John Ber­cow.

Grieve, whose amend­ment passed last week obliges May to re­spond to a de­feat of her plan within three days, told the Guardian the re­ports were “rub­bish”, and had seen him re­ceive death threats. “I can em­phat­i­cally say, it is to­tally un­true that I am in a con­spir­acy with the Speaker ei­ther to stop Brexit or to change the stand­ing or­ders of the house,” he said.


▲ Theresa May in her Maiden­head con­stituency yes­ter­day. Below, the Brexit min­is­ter, Stephen Bar­clay


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