Secret ‘Plan B’ for Brexit
Cabinet and EU plot 11th-hour alternatives to May’s deal as leaders meet in Brussels
CABINET ministers and EU diplomats are secretly drawing up “Plan B” proposals for Brexit based on a growing assumption that Theresa May’s deal will be blocked by Parliament.
Senior figures on both sides of the Channel are urgently plotting alternatives to the agreement struck by the Prime Minister after 91 Conservative MPs indicated that they would oppose it in the Commons.
The disclosure comes as EU leaders meet in Brussels to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and “political declaration” outlining the proposed future relationship between the UK and the bloc after Brexit. Mrs May arrived at the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters at 6pm yesterday ahead of the specially-convened meeting of the European Council.
Last night Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said he would recommend to EU leaders that they approved the deal. He added: “As a motto for tomorrow, the words of Freddie Mercury, who passed away exactly 27 years ago: ‘Friends will be friends, right till the end’.” Today, in an open letter to the country, Mrs May insists her deal honours the result of the referendum and says she will be “campaigning with my heart and soul” to win the Commons vote next month.
But sources said several senior ministers were talking up one “Plan B” idea of a Norway-style relationship with Brussels, under which the UK would have a more certain “exit mechanism” from the EU’s rules but would be unable to end the free movement of workers from the Continent.
Under the Norway option, the UK would remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), without full EU membership. A Government document leaked to The Sunday Tele
graph reveals that economic modelling by the Treasury designed to allow MPs to compare Mrs May’s deal to a no-deal exit would also include an “EEA-like scenario” – in a further sign that the arrangement is being considered seriously in Whitehall.
The leaked document states that the proposed Treasury modelling is designed to “support any ‘meaningful vote’ in Parliament on the final deal”. Tory MPs fear a series of exaggerated claims about the impact of an exit with- out a deal. In Belfast, a senior insider in the Democratic Unionist Party, which has threatened to pull its support for Mrs May’s administration if she presses ahead with her deal, said the party had also held discussions with Cabinet ministers about “a Plan B”.
Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, is said to be among ministers who have discussed the Norway idea in recent weeks – although an ally insisted he was squarely behind Mrs May’s plan.
Separately, senior EU figures are war-gaming a scenario under which Brussels could agree to extend Article 50, the mechanism under which the UK will leave the bloc next March. Diplomats believe that a reprieve could allow time for various possible outcomes, such as a new prime minister, a general election, a negotiation over a Norway-style Brexit, or a second referendum.
Meanwhile, Dominic Raab, who resigned as Brexit secretary over the deal earlier this month, said there was “still time” to salvage Mrs May’s deal with “modest and reasonable” changes that would allow it to pass
through the House of Commons. Distancing himself from calls to “junk” in its entirety the controversial insurance plan in the Withdrawal Agreement agreed with Brussels, Mr Raab suggested that Mrs May could regain his support – and that of many MPs – by insisting on a new “exit mechanism” from the backstop that could be subject to “conditions” to satisfy the concerns of the EU. He also called on Mrs May to seek changes to last week’s “political declaration” – a non-legally binding document which covers the UK’s future relationship with the EU – so it no longer risked “shackling” the country to rules and customs arrangements “over which we have no say”.
The Telegraph understands that officials at the European Council have already discussed the terms on which they might extend Article 50, if they were asked by Mrs May or a future prime minister were she to fall.
Any extension would require unanimous support from the 27 other EU leaders, and EU sources said it would likely be very limited in nature.
“The extension might only be for a month or so, to make emergency preparations for a ‘no deal’,” said an EU source with knowledge of the thinking of the European Council, which is led by Mr Tusk. The source added: “The longest an extension could continue until is probably July, when the results of the European Parliament elections are codified, and then it would only be to accommodate a specific move, like a second referendum. Ultimately it will be up to the leaders.”
Meanwhile, a cohort of senior Conservatives, led by David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, warned Mrs May that she was making a no-deal outcome more likely by ploughing on with her plan. The group, also comprising Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel, Owen Paterson, John Whittingdale and Jacob Rees-Mogg, stated: “Our grave doubts about this proposal are shared across the House of Commons by members of all parties. By continuing to pursue it, when it is plain that it does not have enough votes to carry it through the House of Commons, you are making a no-deal scenario more likely.
“The no-deal situation will involve some element of risk, challenge and short-term disruption – just as the historic vote to leave in 2016 did. But we still believe, as you once did, that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. It is better than a deal which would cost our country £39billion and hand the EU the keys to our destiny.”
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, greets Theresa May at the EU headquarters in Brussels yesterday