Senior ministers believe that the European Union will insist on a Brexit delay of up to two years if Britain fails to agree a deal in the next few weeks.
Several sources have told the Standard they do not think the sort of “short, limited extension” of Article 50 suggested by Theresa May in the Commons yesterday would be permitted by Brussels.
Ministers closely involved in Brexit preparations believe the EU would probably demand an extension until December 2020, effectively replacing the planned transition period with continued EU membership.
The disadvantage for Britain is that would also delay the start of negotiations on future trade deals and UK/EU relations, which Brussels claims must begin only after the UK has left the bloc. “Any delay has to be agreed by all 27 EU countries which means we cannot stipulate how long it would be,” said a minister. “The EU does not want a short delay. It would prefer 21 months, which would mean no future relationship talks until the start of 2021.”
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson reportedly raised the issue in yesterday’s stormy Cabinet meeting, warning colleagues that if Britain asks for an extension in a no-deal scenario it will be entirely in the gift of the EU to decide how long it is for.
The issue is separate to that of what happens if Mrs May’s stricken deal is passed by the Commons in March.
Multiple ministers have said privately that a short delay until June would be “inevitable” because essential legislation is behind schedule. However, No 10 denies that a delay will be needed if the deal goes through.
A Cabinet source agreed the problem would arise if Britain had to seek a delay to avoid crashing out without a deal.
“We have been told nine months, a year, perhaps,” said the source. “If we revoke Article 50, they control the amount of time.” A report in the Guardian recently said EU officials in Brussels were “exploring” a 21-month delay to avoid the possibility of multiple short delays while Britain makes up its mind. A senior Downing Street official said today he had “heard absolutely nothing to suggest that is true” and that recent discussions in Egypt suggested the EU would not want any delay to last beyond June, when new European Parliament elections take place.
Mrs May’s senior negotiator, Olly Robbins, was overheard in a Brussels bar recently saying MPs would have a choice between voting for Mrs May’s deal or facing a “long” Brexit postponement. He was quoted as saying: “Extension [of Article 50] is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one.”
The Prime Minister yesterday defused the threat of a no-deal exit on March 29 by promising MPs a vote on a delay. Her climbdown was today hailed for avoiding “an historic mistake” by Sir Oliver Letwin, one of the architects of a cross-party plan for the Commons to seize control of the timetable if no-deal appeared likely.
Writing in the Standard tonight, he warns: “The last thing we can afford to do is sigh with relief and relax… every one of us in the House of Commons now needs to play our part in finding a resolution that can achieve a majority.” Asked if a no-deal exit from the EU was now off the table, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told Radio 4’s Today: “No-deal is still on the table. It will be for Parliament to decide.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, who heads the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs, told Today: “People who want delay must be using it by-and-large to try and stop Brexit.” He said MPs could still be in the same impasse when the extension ran out in June.
But business leaders said delaying Brexit was an “option on sanity”. Carolyn Fairbairn, of the CBI, said: “Here we are 30 days out from March 29, business is not ready, Government is not ready.It would be a wrecking ball on our economy. So, that is a small step forward.” The British wine industry today warned that a no-deal Brexit would generate over 600,000 additional forms, costing £70 million.
MPs are staging votes tonight on a series of amendments, including a call backed by 60 Tories for the rights of EU citizens and UK expats to be protected from a no-deal crisis.
Other amendments include Labour’s Yvette Cooper seeking to pin the Prime Minister down to the commitments she made yesterday; a Jeremy Corbyn amendment urging his party’s Brexit demands like a customs union; and a call by the Independent Group for a new referendum.