Minister talks down Brexit delay claim

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Stephen Barclay and Amber Rudd head in to the first cabinet meeting of the new year

The Brexit Secretary has cast doubt on claims UK and EU officials are talking about delaying Brexit if MPs reject Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.

Stephen Barclay said the UK remained committed to leaving on 29 March.

According to the Telegraph UK officials had been “putting out feelers” about extending Article 50, the mechanism taking the UK out of the EU.

Mr Barclay said he had not spoken to the EU about that and any delay would cause “some very practical issues”.

His remarks came the day after Digital Minister Margot James suggesting Article 50 might have to be extended in order to stop a no-deal Brexit if Mrs May’s deal is rejected by Parliament.

According to the Telegraph, UK officials have been “testing the waters” about an Article 50 extension, to allow time for more talks.

But Mr Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s not a unilateral decision for the UK. That is not a decision the UK government could take, it would require the consent of all 27 member states.

“It would also generate some very practical issues, for example EU parliamentary elections at the end of May.”

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Media captionMargot James: “We might have to extend Article 50”, but would not give a timescale.

Mr Barclay said the “real question” facing MPs when they vote on Mrs May’s deal next Tuesday was between leaving with Mrs May’s deal or “no deal”.

But David Davis, one of Mr Barclay’s predecessors as Brexit secretary, said: “The very fact they (EU officials) are talking about it tells you that Mr Barclay’s assertion that this is the only deal on the table is not, actually, entirely accurate.

“Because what actually is going on, is the Europeans are thinking about the next stage, and the next stage is another round of negotiation.”

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Theresa May hosted Boris Johnson and other Tory MPs for drinks on Monday – but none said their minds had changed

He said delaying Brexit for more talks would be a “bad idea” – and the UK should hold its nerve and force the EU back to the negotiating table to get legal assurances and “some sort of undertaking on a free trade deal”.

He was speaking after Irish premier Leo Varadkar said the EU would offer the UK government fresh assurances on the Withdrawal Agreement to help Theresa May get her deal through Parliament.

Speaking to reporters during a trip to Mali, Mr Varadkar said: “What’s happening at the moment is there is close contact between the UK and EU institutions as to whether a further set of written guarantees, explanations and assurances could make a difference.”

He added: “We don’t want to trap the UK into anything – we want to get on to the talks about the future relationship right away.

“I think it’s those kind of assurances we are happy to give.”

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Yvette Cooper says her amendment has support from Remain and Leave MPs

Mrs May needs to convince many of her own MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which keeps her minority government in power, that the UK will not end up in a permanent customs arrangement with the EU as a consequence of her deal.

Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who led a failed attempt to remove Mrs May as Conservative leader, said opposition to her deal had hardened over the Christmas break and she was heading for defeat next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a cross-party group of MPs, headed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Nicky Morgan, will later attempt to make it harder for the UK to leave the EU without a deal.

The MPs have tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill in the hope of stopping the government raising money to implement a no-deal Brexit, without the explicit consent of Parliament.

The technical changes to a crucial piece of government legislation are intended to demonstrate to the government the strength of opposition to a no-deal Brexit in the Commons.

Government sources warned over the weekend of “paralysis” and an effective “shutdown” if the Treasury was stripped of the power to pass regulations relating to “no-deal financial provisions” without parliamentary approval.

Labour have said they will back the amendment, prompting speculation that ministers will be forced to accept it in order to avoid a damaging defeat.

If the government does not back down, a vote on the amendment is expected at about 19:00 GMT.

Minister Richard Harrington told BBC Newsnight he was prepared to resign to stop the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, adding that his position was “not an uncommon one”.

The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March whether there is a deal or not.

The deal which Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated with the EU – which covers the terms of the UK’s divorce and the framework of future relations with the EU – has not been formally approved.

A no-deal Brexit is one where the UK leaves the EU but without any agreed arrangements covering things like how trade or travel will work in the future.

Writing in the Guardian, Yvette Cooper said a no-deal Brexit would cause “deep and long-lasting” damage, and the country “can’t afford to play Brexit chicken and wait to see who blinks first”.

But International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who backs Mrs May’s deal, said it would be “irresponsible to tie the government’s hands” at this stage by ruling out any options.

In other Brexit developments:

  • Mrs May welcomed Tory MPs to Downing Street for a drinks reception on Monday as part of her charm offensive to persuade them to back her deal
  • Opponents of Mrs May’s deal, including Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, have insisted they will not change their minds despite the drinks evening. Jacob Rees-Mogg writes in the Daily Telegraph that the public’s mood has “hardened” against the deal
  • Business lobby group London First has urged ministers to “stop the clock” on Brexit and consider the case for another referendum
  • A new government website advising consumers and businesses what to do in a no deal situation will go live on Tuesday
  • German and Irish foreign ministers are to meet to try to find a “fix” for the Irish border backstop
  • MPs write to the head of the Met Police saying they have “serious concerns” about public order and security outside Parliament, after Tory MP Anna Soubry was verbally abused outside Parliament by pro-Brexit supporters

MPs will vote on 15 January on whether to accept the legally-binding terms of withdrawal negotiated by Mrs May, as well as a framework of future relations with the EU. Five days of debate in the Commons will begin on Wednesday.

The prime minister has said the UK will be in “uncharted territory” if the deal is not accepted although she has not ruled out asking the Commons to vote on it on several times prior to the 29 March deadline.

After chairing the first cabinet meeting of 2019 later, Mrs May will meet a delegation of cross-party MPs who believe that a no-deal exit would be disastrous for British industry, more than 200 of whom have urged her to rule it out.

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