Theresa May asks MPs to hold their nerve on Brexit talks
British PM’s Brexit negotiator overheard discussing prospect of leave date extension
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn listens to British prime minister Theresa May’s statement on Brexit in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Photograph: Ho/AFP/Getty Images
Theresa May has appealed to MPs for more time to push Brussels into agreeing to changes to her Brexit deal, in an update to the House of Commons that contained no new announcements and reiterated her opposition to a Labour compromise plan.
With negotiations over possible changes to the Border backstop at a crucial stage, parliament needed to hold its nerve, the British prime minister said, adding that a Brexit motion to be debated on Thursday would reiterate those intentions.
In response, Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May had offered MPs only “more excuses and more delays”.
By rejecting Labour’s idea of a customs union membership, Mrs May had shown she wanted to “deliberately run down the clock and play chicken with people’s livelihoods”, the Labour leader said.
In a separate development on Tuesday night, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins was reported to have warned that MPs face the choice of Mrs May’s deal with the EU or a long extension of the March 29th deadline for leaving the bloc.
ITV news said its correspondent overheard Mr Robbins talking at a hotel bar in Brussels on Monday. It said Mr Robbins said he expected MPs in March to be presented with backing a reworked Brexit deal or a potentially significant delay to Brexit.
“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension,” he was overheard saying. “In the end they will probably just give us an extension.”
ITV also reported that Mr Robbins, in the same conversation, said the Border backstop was designed not as a “safety net” for the island of Ireland but as “a bridge” to a long-term trading UK-EU relationship.
The backstop is the mechanism to ensure there is no hard Border in Ireland after Brexit, and is opposed by Brexiteer MPs who claim it could keep the UK in the EU customs union indefinitely.
ITV described Mr Robbins’s remarks on the backstop as “explosive”, because they would “confirm the fears of Tory Brexiters that he and May always saw some form of customs union membership as the long term ambition for the UK’s trading relationship with the EU”.
Mrs May’s earlier statement in the Commons followed talks last week in Brussels, where she sought legally binding changes to the backstop, as outlined in an amendment to a Brexit motion passed in the Commons at the end of last month.
The amendment, tabled by the leading Tory backbencher Graham Brady, “gave me a clear mandate and sent an unequivocal message to the European Union”, Mrs May said.
Having discussed it with the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, Mrs May told MPs: “As expected, President Juncker maintained the EU’s position that they will not reopen the withdrawal agreement.”
Despite that, the prime minister signalled no changes to her plans, just an extended deadline. “So our work continues,” she said. “Having secured an agreement with the European Union for further talks, we now need some time to complete that process.
“The talks are at a crucial stage. We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this house requires and deliver Brexit on time.”
Mrs May reiterated her rejection of a customs union, which was one of five demands made by Corbyn if she wanted Labour to back her deal. She said a customs union would stop the UK signing its own trade deals and was “a less desirable outcome than that which is provided for in the political declaration”.
The prime minister made a fresh appeal to potentially wavering Labour MPs by stressing her post-Brexit commitment to environmental and workers’ rights, reiterating the offer made in her response to Mr Corbyn that parliament could vote on whether to match any future EU changes in these areas.
In response, Mr Corbyn accused Mrs May of playing for time and having no plan. “Our country is facing the biggest crisis in a generation, and yet this prime minister continues to recklessly run down the clock,” he said.
“We were promised there would be a deal last October – that didn’t happen. We were promised a meaningful vote on a deal in December – that didn’t happen. We were told to prepare for a further meaningful vote this week after the prime minister again promised to secure significant and legally binding changes to the backstop – and that hasn’t happened.”
Mrs May’s only plan, Mr Corbyn said, was “to run down the clock hoping members of this house are blackmailed into supporting a deeply flawed deal. This is an irresponsible act. She is playing for time and playing with people’s jobs, our economic security and the future of our industry”.
An already bad-tempered debate was briefly held up when Ian Blackford, the Scottish National party’s Westminster leader, was heard calling Mrs May a “liar” as she responded to one of his points about publishing economic analyses. It is forbidden under Commons rules to accuse other MPs of deliberate dishonesty.
The speaker, John Bercow, on being told what Mr Blackford had said, told him to withdraw the accusation “at once”. Mr Blackford told Mr Bercow: “In courtesy to yourself, I withdraw.” – Guardian/Agencies