Friday 23 August 2019

May gathers cabinet as Barnier says no-deal Brexit more likely by the day

  • Cabinet meeting for 5 hours today
  • Barnier says no deal 'becomes day after day more likely'
  • Calls for UK to leave without agreement or seek Article 50 extension
  • MPs failed to back proposals again yesterday
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Shaun Connolly and David Hughes

Theresa May is holding a marathon Cabinet session to try and break the Brexit deadlock, as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said a no-deal withdrawal was becoming more likely by the day.

The British Prime Minister is gathering her top team for crisis talks in Downing Street after MPs again failed to find a majority for a series of alternatives to her Brexit deal.

A call for a customs union with the EU was rejected by just three votes, while a demand for a second referendum was defeated by 12 and a Norway-style deal put forward by Nick Boles by 21.

Mr Barnier said the UK now had two options, quit the EU without a deal, or seek an extension to Article 50.

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier holds a news conference after a General Affairs Council on Article 50 in Brussels, Belgium March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman
European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier holds a news conference after a General Affairs Council on Article 50 in Brussels, Belgium March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Barnier said: "If the UK Parliament does not vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement in the coming days only two options would remain.

"Leaving without an agreement or requesting a longer extension of the Article 50 period."

He added: "No deal was never our desired or intended scenario.

"But the EU is now prepared."

He said no deal "becomes day after day more likely".

Mr Barnier said: "The UK may ask for another extension. Such an extension would carry significant risks for the EU.

"Therefore a strong justification would be needed.

"We have always said that we can accept a customs union, or relationship along the style of the Norway model.

"In fact, however, the Political Declaration today can accommodate all of these options already.

"It leaves the door open for a variety of outcomes.

"But if the UK so wishes we are ready to rework the Political Declaration."

Mr Barnier later told the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs that no-deal would disrupt EU/UK security co-operation.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay arrives in Downing Street, London, for a cabinet meeting. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay arrives in Downing Street, London, for a cabinet meeting. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

"We need to be aware of the implications of a no-deal for our security partnership," he told MEPs.

"There will be a break in the level of talks, less mutual commitment, risks to intelligence pooling. There might be inconsistencies in applying sanctions regimes because of a low level of co-operation.

"The UK would no longer be taking part in EU operations or in the European Defence Agency's capacity-building programmes."

Mr Barnier said: "No-deal for some time poses the threat of there being no organised framework... Come what may, we must fend off the risk of strategic divergence."

The comments came after a dramatic day in the Commons which saw Mr Boles declare that he would no longer sit as a Conservative MP as he blamed the party for refusing to compromise on a means of leaving the European Union.

Cabinet is meeting on Tuesday for five hours to thrash out a way forward.

The first three hours will be without civil servants, fuelling speculation the senior Tories could use the time to consider a snap election, the timing of the Prime Minister's exit from office or to air the bitter grievances between the Leave and Remain wings of the ministerial team.

The failure of any option to gain a majority in the Commons left the UK no clearer about its direction with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on April 12.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told MPs that if they wanted to secure a further delay from the European Union, the Government must be able to put forward a "credible proposition" as to what it would do.

But he held out the prospect of leaving with a deal next month - as long as MPs back one.

He said: "If the House were to agree a deal this week, it may still be possible to avoid holding European Parliamentary elections."

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock pleaded with MPs to back the Prime Minister's deal "and deliver Brexit".

But European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said the votes meant "a hard Brexit becomes nearly inevitable".

He suggested that Wednesday, when MPs may have a third attempt at reaching a majority, was the "last chance to break the deadlock or face the abyss".

Labour chairman of the Commons Brexit Committee Hilary Benn said that if the PM did not announce she was seeking an Article 50 extension, MPs could try to force her to on Wednesday.

Referring to an extension request, he told the BBC: "If she does not do so then there is an option available to the House of Commons to seek to legislate to require the Prime Minister to do that."

After a debate disrupted by semi-naked climate change protesters in the public gallery, "indicative votes" were again held in an attempt to establish what outcome might have majority support among MPs following a similar process last week.

MPs have control of proceedings in the Commons for a third time on Wednesday, but Speaker John Bercow said it was not yet clear what debates and votes will be staged.

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