Brexit: Britain may need to delay exit to pass legislation, Jeremy Hunt says

Corbyn says an extension may be required due to government’s ‘failure to negotiate’

Britain may need to delay its exit from the European Union in order to pass crucial legislation if a deal is agreed in late March, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

The British foreign secretary said a technical delay to Brexit would depend on how long the process takes.

He told BBC’s Today programme: “I think it is true that if we ended up approving a deal in the days before the 29th March then we might need some extra time to pass critical legislation, but if we are able to make progress sooner then that might not be necessary.

“We can’t know at this stage exactly which of those scenarios would happen.”


Mr Hunt said it was “difficult to know” if negotiations would run to the end of March, but added: “Whereas a week ago none of us really knew whether this was going to be possible, we are now in a situation where it clearly is possible.

“There are lots and lots of hurdles, no one is saying this isn’t going to be very challenging, but we do now have a consensus in parliament.

"We can use that consensus, providing we can meet these concerns, very reasonable concerns from our friends in Ireland about not having a hard Border, concerns in the EU about access to the single market.

“Providing we can do that, which I think we can, then I think there is a way through.”

Meanwhile, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, speaking in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, told reporters: "It is possible that there will have to be an extension in order to get an agreement because we cannot leave the EU on March 29th without an agreement.

“Crashing out would mean problems of transport, problems of medicine supply, problems of supply to the food processing industry that does just in time deliveries — and that simply is not acceptable.

“This government has had two-and-a-half years to negotiate and has failed to do so.”

The London Times reported that British prime minister Theresa May is preparing to woo rebel Labour MPs into supporting her Brexit deal with an injection of cash into deprived areas which voted Leave in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, including former mining communities.

Downing Street confirmed that ministers were looking at a programme of “national renewal” following Brexit to tackle inequality and rebuild communities.

On Tuesday night, Mrs May promised to seek legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement after MPs voted to support her Brexit deal if she secures changes to the Northern Ireland backstop.

The backstop is a mechanism in the withdrawal agreement aimed at avoiding a hard Border in Ireland after Brexit regardless of the nature of the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

Union officials met with government officials in the cabinet office on Thursday to discuss Mrs May’s promise of protections for workers’ rights as part of her latest Brexit plan. Speaking after the meeting, a TUC spokesman said Mrs May’s deal came “nowhere close” to offering the safeguards needed by working people.

Separately, House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said the February recess for MPs may be scrapped. The Commons was expected to rise at the end of business on February 14th and return on February 25th.

European Commission

The latest developments come as officials from the European Commission are due in Dublin next week to discuss preparations for a no-deal Brexit, as preparations for a British crashout intensify across the EU.

EU official and diplomatic sources said while support for Ireland would remain strong and consistent in the weeks ahead, the logic of the situation was that the State would come under pressure on the backstop.

“There will be no pressure from us,” said one EU diplomat. “But the situation will bring pressure.”

EU officials and diplomats believe that with Britain facing a possible crashout, the option of softening the State’s stance on the backstop would inevitably be discussed – though all who spoke to The Irish Times said that the EU would not try to persuade or pressure Ireland. “It will be your call,” one said.

Last night Mrs May offered no new ideas about avoiding a hard Border in a telephone call with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and senior Irish Government sources now say they will "sit tight" until Mrs May comes forward with proposals.

As relations between Dublin and London grow ever frostier, Mr Varadkar is understood to have told the Fine Gael parliamentary party last night that he told Mrs May it is unusual to go back on an agreement.

Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – along with EU leaders – reaffirmed their unwillingness to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and the backstop, as Mrs May has pledged to her MPs she will do.

In London, Mrs May told the House of Commons that the proposal she will present to the EU on the backstop would be based on the concerns expressed by MPs. She said her colleagues had suggested putting a time limit on the backstop or including a universal exit mechanism.

“The political declaration [in the withdrawal agreement] already refers to alternative arrangements and raises a number of proposals that can be addressed, such as mutual recognition of trusted trader schemes,” she said.

Corbyn meeting

Mr Corbyn met the prime minister to discuss his party’s call for Britain to remain in a permanent customs union with the EU. Mr Corbyn initially refused to meet Mrs May until she ruled out a no-deal Brexit, but Labour sources said the meeting was cordial, adding that the two leaders would meet again soon.

“I set out the Labour case for a comprehensive customs union with the European Union, in order to protect jobs and trade. She certainly understood the point that we were making,” Mr Corbyn said afterwards. Mr Corbyn said that he had discussed Labour’s difficulties with the backstop with Mrs May, which the prime minister undertook to bring to the EU, but also reiterated his opposition to a no-deal outcome.

In Brussels, the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament that Tuesday night's vote at Westminster would not persuade the EU to renegotiate the text of the withdrawal agreement. And he counselled Britain against seeking comfort in the hope that the other 26 member states would abandon Ireland at the last minute.

“But this is not a game. It goes to the heart of what being a member of the EU means. Ireland’s border is Europe’s border and it’s our union’s priority,” he said.

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz also ruled out reopening the withdrawal agreement and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier criticised Mrs May for abandoning it. "She distanced herself from the agreement she herself had negotiated," he said.

Mrs May is due to report back to Parliament on her negotiations with the EU on February 13th, with a further series of votes by MPs expected the following day. Reports have suggested she could face a wave of resignations by pro-Remain ministers if she does not at that point finally rule out a no-deal Brexit. – Additional reporting PA

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times