EU chiefs and Tories fear May government could collapse ‘within weeks’ over Brexit deadlock
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has extended UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s deadline to settle the Irish border issue to next Wednesday – the eve of an EU leaders’ summit, which takes place next Thursday – to give her more time to broker a successful deal.
Juncker had previously suggested that Sunday was the last day that he could meet May to resolve the Irish issue, after allowing her an extra week after May failed to strike a deal on the Irish border by the last deadline, which expired on Monday.
One EU official told the Daily Telegraph that Juncker wants to support the British prime minister to enable her to reach an agreement that will satisfy all parties.
“Mr Juncker wants to support Mrs May to avoid the collapse of her government. He is prepared to meet her at any time, including on days next week in the run up to the European summit.”
The source said that the text of the disputed draft withdrawal agreement could be changed because “there’s always wriggle room.”
On Wednesday, May suffered an in-party attack from the backbench in the House of Commons, with a Tory MP offering to take the reins on negotiations if May can’t “sort them out” herself.
Unfortunately for May, the in-fighting didn’t stop there. Tory unity seems to be crumbling away entirely, with 20 conservative MPs penning a letter to May during the week, accusing pro-Brexit colleagues of being “highly irresponsible to seek to dictate terms which could lead to the UK walking away.”
Chaos in the party escalated even further when Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond admitted on Wednesday that the Cabinet still had not agreed on a target for the “end state.”
“The Cabinet has had general discussions about our Brexit negotiations but we haven’t had a specific mandating of an end state position,” Hammond told MPs.
“That is something that will be done first in the sub-committee that has been constituted to deal with this issue and of course logically that will happen once we have confirmation that we have reached sufficient progress and that we are going to begin the phase two negotiations with the EU 27. We are not yet at that stage and it would have been premature to have that discussion until we reach that stage.”
The woman at the center of the ill-fated Irish deal, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, told Sky News her party had been asking the May-led Government to look at drafts of the proposed agreement with the EU for five weeks prior to Monday’s decision debacle.
Foster said a version was not sent to her party until late on Monday morning, shortly before the prime minister’s talks with Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
“We hadn’t seen any text, despite asking for text for nearly five weeks now, we haven’t been in receipt of any text and the text only came through to us late yesterday morning,” Foster said. “And obviously once we saw the text we knew it wasn’t going to be acceptable.”
If May fails to negotiate a deal that is accepted by all involved, her next opportunity to get trade talks underway will be in March – but she may not have that long, as the threat of a leadership challenge hangs in the air if her no-deal goes on for much longer.
One Conservative MP told the Telegraph: “I would give her a matter of weeks if it carries on like this."
During the Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Brexit supporter and MP for Wellingborough Peter Bone wondered if Britain would deliver on its promise to leave.
“When the British people voted to leave the European superstate, they voted to end the free movement of people, they voted to stop sending billions and billions of pounds to the EU each and every year, and they voted to make our laws in our own country judged by our own judges,” Bone said.
"Are we on course still to deliver that, and if we have a problem, would it help if I came over to Brussels with you to sort them out?”.
He also labelled Foster the “new heroine of Brexit” for refusing to sign up to “regulatory alignment” with the Republic of Ireland.