Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator has suggested the prime minister is bluffing when she threatens MPs with the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal if they fail to support a revised exit treaty, it was claimed last night.
Olly Robbins was overheard in a Brussels hotel bar claiming that MPs would be presented with a different choice in the last week before Brexit day on March 29: either back Mrs May’s deal or face a lengthy delay to Brexit.
His comments, reported by ITV news, suggest Mr Robbins does not believe Mrs May would ultimately authorise a disorderly no-deal exit and that she would instead request an extension to the Article 50 exit process.
“Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March . . . Extension is possible, but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one,” Mr Robbins was reported as saying.
There has been discussion in Brussels circles of the EU allowing Britain a lengthy extension of Article 50 — possibly up to a year — if it needs time to fundamentally rethink Brexit, including possibly holding a general election.
“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension,” Mr Robbins is reported as saying. “In the end they will probably just give us an extension.”
The comments, which were not denied by Downing Street, are embarrassing for Mrs May, who on Tuesday insisted that the choice facing MPs was between her deal and no deal. She wants to use the threat of a chaotic exit to focus minds.
She made the same claim to business leaders in a conference call on Tuesday, insisting: “An option to extend for a longer period would just continue the uncertainty.” She added: “We would only be able to extend if we have a deal.”
However Mr Robbins version of the last-minute ultimatum facing MPs makes political sense. Some hardline Eurosceptics want a “clean break” no-deal exit, but could be swayed if they felt that Brexit on March 29 was about to be snatched away from them.
Mr Robbins was overheard making the remarks by an ITV News team in Brussels, who were in the hotel bar for a nightcap. The civil servant was said to have been speaking to two colleagues, exchanging gossip about Brexit, the cabinet and MPs.
“We don’t propose to comment on alleged remarks from a private conversation,” a government spokesman said.
Mr Robbins also allegedly made an inflammatory suggestion that the Irish backstop plan — which has enraged Tory Eurosceptics — was originally conceived as a “bridge” to the long-term UK/EU trading relationship.
Mrs May has always denied that the backstop — which includes a “temporary” customs union as an insurance against a physical border in Ireland — was intended to pave the way for a permanent customs union as part of a future UK/EU trade deal.
“The big clash all along is the ‘safety net’,” Mr Robbins was reported as saying. “We agreed a bridge, but it came out as a safety net.”
Earlier on Tuesday Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused Theresa May of “blackmail” and “running down the clock”, after the UK prime minister said that she needed more time to continue Brexit talks with the EU.
With less than seven weeks to go until Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU, Mrs May declined to present a detailed Brexit Plan B to parliament on Tuesday.
Instead she promised that MPs would be able to vote on a way forward on February 27, if her government has failed to win approval for an exit deal with the EU before then.
Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, said he would only accept a time limit on the backstop if it were contained in the treaty and the date fell “substantially” ahead of the next general election, due in 2022. Mrs May replied that a change to the draft treaty was “the obvious way”.
She added that, “as expected”, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had refused to reopen the withdrawal agreement. The two leaders would meet again “before the end of February”. Mrs May’s advisers will also meet Mr Corbyn’s team, but she ruled out keeping the UK in a customs union with the EU, a key Labour demand.