Tuesday 20 August 2019

Brexit could ‘slip through our fingers’ unless deal agreed with Labour – May

Talks between the two main parties have stalled, with Labour accusing Theresa May of failing to offer real change to her Brexit deal.

Theresa May is seeking cross-party agreement on Brexit (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Theresa May is seeking cross-party agreement on Brexit (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

David Hughes

Theresa May has warned that Brexit could “slip through our fingers” unless a compromise deal can be reached with Labour.

The British Prime Minister, who has been accused by Labour of failing to propose changes to her deal in cross-party negotiations, insisted their positions offered “the basis for a compromise”.

She said agreeing a deal could lead to the UK leaving the European Union in six weeks but a failure could result in no Brexit at all.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants a customs union to be part of a deal and he is also under pressure from his party to insist on a second referendum on any agreement – although that could trigger a revolt by some of his MPs, including senior frontbenchers.

Mrs May faces anger from Conservative Brexiteers over the prospect of the UK’s departure being delayed, with one minister saying that if Britons were required to elect MEPs on May 23 it would be like writing a “suicide note” for the Tory party.

The Prime Minister heads to Brussels on Wednesday to ask for an extension to June 30, with the possibility of an earlier Brexit day if a deal is agreed – but the EU has signalled it would insist on a longer delay rather than risk repeated requests for extra time.

The Prime Minister said she had done “everything in my power” to persuade Tory and DUP MPs to back her deal but acknowledged the Withdrawal Agreement had been rejected by the Commons three times and “there is no sign it can be passed in the near future”.

“Because Parliament has made clear it will stop the UK leaving without a deal, we now have a stark choice: leave the European Union with a deal or do not leave at all,” she said.

“My answer to that is clear: we must deliver Brexit and to do so we must agree a deal. If we cannot secure a majority among Conservative and DUP MPs we have no choice but to reach out across the House of Commons.

“The referendum was not fought along party lines and people I speak to on the doorstep tell me they expect their politicians to work together when the national interest demands it.

“The fact is that on Brexit there are areas where the two main parties agree: we both want to end free movement, we both want to leave with a good deal, and we both want to protect jobs.

“That is the basis for a compromise that can win a majority in Parliament and winning that majority is the only way to deliver Brexit.”

But she warned that “the longer this takes, the greater the risk of the UK never leaving at all”.

“It would mean letting the Brexit the British people voted for slip through our fingers. I will not stand for that,” she said.

Labour has accused Mrs May of refusing to consider changes to the Political Declaration, the document setting out a framework for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Mr Corbyn said: “The Labour position is a customs union with the European Union, access to European markets and the retention of regulations for environment, consumers, and workplace rights as a base on which we can build – a dynamic relationship which means we can never fall below them.

“We’ve set all that out. I haven’t noticed any great change in the Government’s position so far. I’m waiting to see the red lines move.”

The prospect of a long extension to the Article 50 process could mean the UK being required to take part in the May 23 elections to the European Parliament, almost three years after voting for Brexit.

Government minister Nadhim Zahawi issued a stark warning about the “seismic” changes to British politics that would be unleashed if the UK’s delayed departure meant the elections went ahead.

“It would be, I think, a suicide note of the Conservative Party if we had to fight the European elections,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

European leaders will decide on Mrs May’s request at an emergency summit on Wednesday in Brussels.

European Council president Donald Tusk is expected to recommend a longer postponement of one year, with a break clause in the case of earlier ratification, in a so-called “flextension” deal.

An extension is not automatic and requires the agreement of all 27 other EU countries, with France demanding a plan from Mrs May that has “clear and credible political backing”.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar warned that any EU country vetoing an extension would not be forgiven.

“If one country was to veto an extension and, as a result, impose hardship on us, real problems for the Dutch and Belgians and French as neighbouring countries … they wouldn’t be forgiven for it and they would know they might find themselves on the other end of that veto power in the future – so it is extremely unlikely that I could see any country vetoing it,” he told RTE Radio One.

Mrs May has already obtained one extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process, postponing the date of Brexit from March 29 to April 12.

Chancellor Philip Hammond acknowledged the frustration with the British among the 27 other EU members.

“Most of the colleagues that I am talking to accept that we will need longer to complete this process, so I am optimistic about the council on Wednesday,” he said.

“I understand that EU colleagues are somewhat fed up that the process has taken as long as it has; we are also fed up that we haven’t been able to complete this earlier, but I am very confident that we will get it done.”

PA Media

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