May’s Brexit on the brink

PM braced for new res­ig­na­tions af­ter shock Jo John­son exit Ja­cob Rees-Mogg: UK can pay EU £20bn for a ‘No Deal Plus’ No 10 vows: we won’t cave in to EU over cus­toms union ...and points fin­ger at Ir­ish PM over back­stop sab­o­tage

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - By Glen Owen and Bren­dan Car­lin

THERESA MAY’S hopes of striking a Brexit deal have been thrown into chaos af­ter Brus­sels re­jected an emer­gency plan de­signed to avert a Cabi­net split which could bring down her Pre­mier­ship.

Down­ing Street had pinned its hopes of a break­through on a pro­posal drawn up by At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ge­of­frey Cox to pla­cate Brex­i­teers fear­ful that the UK will be left as an EU ‘vas­sal’.

But last night, sources in Lon­don and Brus­sels said that the EU had dis­missed the ‘Cox com­pro­mise’, in­creas­ing the risk that the UK will now be forced into a no-deal Brexit.

No10 sought to calm Tory MPs’ nerves by in­sist­ing that the Govern­ment would not strike an agree­ment ‘at any cost’ and surrender to EU de­mands.

How­ever, Brex­i­teer Tories queued up to crit­i­cise Mrs May’s han­dling of the ne­go­ti­a­tions as a ‘sham­bles’ which was turn­ing the UK into an in­ter­na­tional ‘laugh­ing stock’. The tense deadlock came as: Ja­cob Rees-Mogg, the pow­er­ful leader of arch-Brexit Tory MPs, of­fered Mrs May a way out of the im­passe by call­ing for her to pay £20bil­lion to Brus­sels to se­cure a ‘No Deal Plus’ ar­range­ment;

Mrs May was on alert for fresh Govern­ment res­ig­na­tions in the wake of Trans­port Min­is­ter Jo John­son’s shock de­par­ture on Fri­day over her ‘deeply flawed’ ne­go­ti­a­tions; he said yes­ter­day that other Min­is­ters were ‘re­flect­ing hard’ on their po­si­tion;

The PM’s al­lies said any chance of the Cabi­net ap­prov­ing a draft deal in the next 48 hours were ‘re­ced­ing fast’, po­ten­tially de­lay­ing the crunch Com­mons vote un­til 2019;

No10 pointed the fin­ger at Ir­ish Prime Min­is­ter Leo Varad­kar for ‘sab­o­tag­ing’ the process;

Anti-May MPs told col­leagues to re­dou­ble their ef­forts to force the Prime Min­is­ter to quit by sub­mit­ting let­ters of ‘no con­fi­dence’ in her lead­er­ship.

Out­lin­ing his sur­prise ‘No Deal Plus’ plan in to­day’s Mail on Sun­day, Mr Rees-Mogg – who is chair­man of the Tories’ Euro­pean Re­search Group whose 80 mem­bers hold the Prime Min­is­ter’s fate in their hands – sug­gests of­fer­ing a sweet­ener to Brus­sels to ‘make our de­par­ture as am­i­ca­ble as pos­si­ble’.

The Brex­i­teer, who has pre­vi­ously ar­gued against pay­ing any of the planned £39bil­lion ‘di­vorce bill’ to the EU, now ar­gues £20bil­lion would be an ac­cept­able sum to pay to mit­i­gate against any un­ex­pected ef­fects of a no-deal Brexit. Fears have been raised of prob­lems such as huge lorry queues lead­ing into Dover and short­ages of food and medicine.

He writes in The Mail on Sun­day: ‘It is time for con­vinced Brex­i­teers like me to com­pro­mise. So at this late hour in the ne­go­ti­a­tions, we would like to make a new, gen­er­ous of­fer to break the deadlock, to achieve a “No Deal Plus”. It would cost us money but it would fi­nally dis­pel the “crash out” Project Fear night­mare sce­nar­ios.’

Crit­ics say the new plan still does not ad­dress the thorny is­sue of how to avoid a hard bor­der in Ire­land.

Un­der its lat­est timetable, No10 had hoped to reach an agree­ment with the EU by the end of last week, to al­low it to be put be­fore the Cabi­net by Tues­day.

Brus­sels has pri­vately told the Govern­ment that if the green light is not given by Wed­nes­day, it would be too late to trig­ger a vi­tal EU sum­mit be­fore December – mean­ing that the Com­mons vote on the deal would be pushed back un­til af­ter Christ­mas and per­ilously close to Brexit day on March 29.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions have been dead­locked over the EU’s de­mand that the UK should stay within a tem­po­rary cus­toms partnership as the ‘back­stop’ to avoid a hard bor­der in Ire­land if a long-term free trade deal can­not be agreed af­ter the end of the tran­si­tion pe­riod in 2020.

Brex­i­teers want the right to leave the partnership as soon as pos­si­ble and with­out Brus­sels’ ap­proval: the EU says that to do so would in­val­i­date the ‘back­stop’ pro­tec­tion.

If Mrs May agrees to in­def­i­nite mem­ber­ship of the partnership – which would mean accepting Brus­sels rules – she faces the prospect of a mass Cabi­net walk­out and a likely lead­er­ship chal­lenge.

In an at­tempt to solve the prob­lem, Mr Cox had drafted a pro­posal for an in­de­pen­dent ar­bi­tra­tion panel which would de­cide when the UK could leave the partnership with­out

‘No 10 is turn­ing Bri­tain into a laugh­ing stock’

the EU hav­ing a right of veto. But se­nior Govern­ment sources say the EU has now made it clear that only the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice could make a rul­ing on EU laws – which would be un­ac­cept­able to Mrs May.

For­mer Brexit Sec­re­tary David Davis con­demned the EU po­si­tion last night, say­ing it would ‘com­pletely be­tray the wishes of 17.4mil­lion peo­ple’ who voted Leave.

Sources say Brus­sels is dig­ging in on the is­sue at the be­hest of Mr Varad­kar, who is ‘sab­o­tag­ing’ the process be­cause he is ‘play­ing to

the do­mes­tic gallery’ in Dublin over a united Ire­land. Brexit Sec­re­tary Do­minic Raab alarmed the Ir­ish last week by de­mand­ing any back­stop should last just three months.

Mr Varad­kar re­jected the idea that the UK could uni­lat­er­ally call time on the Ir­ish bor­der back­stop, and No10 says any hope of reach­ing an agree­ment be­fore the EU’s Wed­nes­day dead­line now rests on be­ing able to win him round.

The DUP, which is help­ing prop up Mrs May’s Govern­ment, has also stepped up the pressure by warn­ing it will not tol­er­ate any reg­u­la­tory dif­fer­ence be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the rest of the UK.

Jo John­son, the Re­main-vot­ing brother of for­mer For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris, said yes­ter­day that he knew some other Min­is­ters were ‘re­flect­ing hard’ on whether to ac­cept Mrs May’s po­si­tion. He said: ‘If oth­ers fol­low, good on them.’

Last night, Tory arch-Brex­i­teer Peter Bone said: ‘Han­dled the right way, Brexit rep­re­sents a glo­ri­ous fu­ture for our na­tion but the way some peo­ple in No10 are han­dling it is turn­ing us into a laugh­ing stock.’

For­mer Brexit Min­is­ter David Jones said Mrs May’s orig­i­nal clar­ity on de­liv­er­ing Brexit ‘has some­how been dis­torted into a plot so con­vo­luted, it would have de­feated the in­ge­nu­ity of Lewis Car­roll.’

Last night, a No10 source, who ad­mit­ted that hopes of Cabi­net agree­ing to a deal by Tues­day were ‘re­ced­ing fast’ said: ‘We should aim to con­clude the with­drawal agree­ment as soon as pos­si­ble but we will not do this at any cost.

‘There are a num­ber of is­sues that need to be worked through on the North­ern Ire­land back­stop and th­ese are the most dif­fi­cult.

‘They in­clude en­sur­ing that, if it is ever needed, it is not per­ma­nent and there is a mech­a­nism to en­sure the UK could not be held in the ar­range­ment in­def­i­nitely’.

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