Overheard Aide Says May to Offer Deadline Delay: Brexit Update
Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, departs number 10 Downing Street on her way to make a statement in Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Overheard Aide Says May to Offer Deadline Delay: Brexit Update

(Bloomberg) --

Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins was overheard saying the U.K. is seeking a long extension to negotiations if Parliament refuses to pass the prime minister’s deal.

Key Developments:

  • May indicated she’ll try to bypass parliamentary convention to get the deal and related legislation approved at the last minute in time for exit day
  • Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay told the EU its own law means the backstop must be temporary
  • The EU took steps to keep the Channel Tunnel open in a no-deal scenario
  • Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he’s optimistic about deal after meeting his French government

Overheard Remarks Suggest May Seeking Extension (7 p.m.)

The U.K.’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins was overheard by an ITV news reporter in a Brussels bar talking about strategy. According to the broadcaster, he said the plan is to delay the vote on the divorce deal until the final week of March, and then give Parliament a choice between a revised version of May’s deal and a very long extension of Article 50 talks.

The goal would be to scare Brexit supporters into line. A government spokesman said: “We don’t propose to comment on alleged remarks from a private conversation. The government’s focus is on securing the improvements Parliament needs to pass a deal so we leave the EU on March 29.”

Labour Seeks to Stop May ‘Running Down Clock’ (6:23 p.m.)

Hot on the heels of Cooper’s proposal is one from her party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He’s proposed an amendment to May’s Brexit motion that’s set for debate on Thursday. The plan is to either force the premier to hold another “meaningful vote” on whether to approve the whole Brexit deal by Feb. 27, or to admit she no longer has a divorce agreement with the EU and give Parliament a say over what happens next.

“This amendment would stop the Government from running down the clock on the Brexit negotiations, hoping members of Parliament can be blackmailed into supporting a botched deal,” Corbyn said.

MPs Propose New Deadline for May to Get a Deal (5:45 p.m.)

A cross party group of British politicians has published a draft law that would seek to delay Brexit if there’s no deal by mid-March. The members of Parliament, led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, said they’ll take steps to put their plan into action on Feb. 27, if May doesn’t have a revised deal by then.

Backers of the initiative by Cooper include Caroline Spelman, Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles and Dominic Grieve, all members of May’s Conservative Party.

“This bill would require the prime minister and parliament to take crucial decisions by the middle of March at the very latest on whether the U.K. is leaving with a deal, without a deal or seeking an extension to Article 50,” Cooper said. “This bill creates a parliamentary safeguard to prevent us drifting into ‘no deal’ by accident, and to prevent those crucial decisions being left until the final fortnight.”

Hunt Optimistic After Talks in Paris (5 p.m.)

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said meetings with the French government in Paris left him optimistic that a deal can be reached on Brexit.

“There is goodwill to try to find a way through,” Hunt told Sky News. “That desire to get a deal is there, there’s a willingness to engage. This is the very last possible moment but I think it’s possible.”

“People are beginning to realize that now is the time to really engage and maybe it’s a time-honored European thing to solve these problems at the last minute,” he said. “The truth is none of us want no deal."

EU Takes Steps to Keep Channel Tunnel Open (3:50 p.m.)

The EU proposed measures to keep the Channel Tunnel open in the case of no-deal Brexit.

Rail services -- carrying passengers, cars and freight -- would continue through the tunnel, which connects the U.K. to mainland Europe, for three months if Britain leaves on March 29 without approving the Brexit divorce agreement, according to the European Commission. This would be contingent on the U.K. maintaining existing EU safety standards and complying with EU rules on train driver licenses.

The Commission said the three-month period would allow the two sides to come up with longer-term solutions. The measure still needs to be endorsed by the European Parliament and the EU’s 27 remaining governments.

May’s Focus Is Reopening Withdrawal Agreement (2:25 p.m.)

Two officials familiar with the prime minister’s plans said May is focused on persuading the EU to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement to secure legally binding changes within it. That’s despite the premier appearing to give herself wriggle room (see 1:40 p.m.) on backstop changes in her statement to the House of Commons.

The officials said that only attaching a legal codicil to the withdrawal agreement would be unlikely to satisfy May’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party, who have made clear reopening the agreement is the only path they’d consider.

Meanwhile the government’s Brexit motion this week is likely to be similar to last month’s, one of the officials said, and would reflect the amendment to seek changes to the backstop as well as a provision to provide the extra time May needs to negotiate with the EU.

May Plans to Fast-Track Brexit Legislation (2:30 p.m.)

May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters the premier’s plan is to fast-track Brexit legislation if and when her deal is ratified via a so-called meaningful vote in Parliament. That could involve overriding a requirement -- enshrined in 2010 legislation -- for there to be 21 parliamentary sitting days between striking an international agreement and passing it into law.

“Once we have a meaningful vote, the prime minister thinks the British public will want us to leave on time,” Slack said. He said a clause would be included in the bill to essentially repeal the 21-day requirement, and it will be up to Parliament to pass it.

In the meantime, May plans to speak to at least two European leaders this evening, and officials including Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and her de facto deputy, David Lidington -- in Strasbourg on Tuesday -- would continue to meet with EU officials.

May Leaves Wiggle Room on Backstop Changes (1:40 p.m.)

May suggested she’s open minded about how the changes to the backstop are made in order to guarantee that it’s only temporary. The key point is that whatever additional text the EU agrees to must have the same legal force as the Withdrawal Agreement itself, she said.

So far, all Britain has been offered is a commitment in the form of an explanatory letter from the EU. That’s not good enough, May said. The “obvious way” to deal with the issue is to rewrite the Withdrawal Agreement, she added, implying that there are other ways too.

May: There’s Time to Get Brexit Laws Passed (1.35 p.m.)

Asked by anti-Brexit Conservative MP Dominic Grieve whether there’s time to pass all the relevant legislation, May replied -- in effect -- that she’ll rush it through. Parliament has spent a lot of time debating Brexit and the divorce agreement, she said.

SNP’s Blackford Calls May a ‘Liar’ (1:30 p.m.)

Earlier in the session, there was uproar in the House of Commons when Scottish National Party leader Ian Blackford accused Prime Minister Theresa May of being a “liar.”

The outburst followed his question about the government’s analysis of the economic impact of her Brexit deal. When May started to say one had been published, Blackford first shouted “that’s not true” before upgrading his insult.

Tory members of Parliament erupted in anger, and Speaker John Bercow demanded an apology under the arcane rules of debate in Parliament which say it is forbidden “to accuse another member of this House of dishonesty.”

Blackford begrudgingly withdrew his comment “as a courtesy” to the Speaker, without apologizing to May.

May Won’t Say If She’ll Back No-Deal (1:20 p.m.)

The prime minister has been asked repeatedly to rule out a no-deal Brexit, and to commit to extending Article 50 in the event she can’t get an agreement through Parliament -- but has avoided giving a direct answer each time. But she also won’t say if she’d back no-deal in those circumstances.

“What I want, what the government wants is a deal with the European Union,” she said. “If you don’t want no-deal, you have to agree a deal.”

Altmaier: No-Deal Brexit Can Be Avoided (1:10 p.m.)

Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister, said he’s still optimistic that a no-deal Brexit can be avoided. That scenario “would be harmful in many aspects, politically and also economically,” he told Bloomberg TV.

Brexit, he said, is “something we respect. But respecting it does not mean that we don’t regret it.”

Corbyn: May’s Offer of Talks a ‘Pretense’ (1:05 p.m.)

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “playing chicken with people’s livelihoods” by running down the clock to get her Brexit deal through Parliament.

“She’s playing for time and playing with people’s jobs, our economic security and the future of our industries,” Corbyn told the House of Commons. “The prime minister is merely engaged in the pretense of working across Parliament to find solutions.”

He urged ministers reported to be close to resigning to block a no-deal divorce to act. “To stand by and do nothing would be a complete dereliction of duty.”

Corbyn warned that Nissan’s decision to hold back its investment in Britain will be “thin end of a very long wedge” and harked back to Tory opposition to employment rights in the 1990s to dismiss May’s promise of enhanced workers rights after Brexit.

May: Aim to Leave EU on March 29 (12:50 p.m.)

May confirmed that she still needs “some time to complete that process” of negotiating a better deal on the backstop but insisted she’s still aiming to exit the EU on March 29.

The only way to stop a no-deal Brexit is to reach a deal that Parliament can support, May added. She confirmed that if she hasn’t got a deal by Feb. 26, the Commons will have a chance to vote on plan B options the following day.

“Every time somebody votes against a deal, the risk of no-deal increases,” May told the Commons.

May Says Making ‘Reasonable’ Demands of EU (12:40 p.m.)

May told the House of Commons the U.K.’s demand for a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement are “reasonable” given that neither side wants to enter into the Irish backstop in the first place. She said she’s taken Parliament’s “unequivocal” message to her EU counterparts that it needs “legally binding” changes to show the provision is temporary.

The premier said she continues to explore the so-called Malthouse proposal -- a proposal by pro-EU and pro-Brexit wings of her party to find a technological solution to the Irish border, and that the other two possible changes would be to add an exit clause or an end date to the backstop.

“We need some time to complete that process,” May said.

May rejected Labour’s suggestion that the U.K. should enter into a customs union with the EU after Brexit, pointing out that the House of Commons has already voted against the option.

“Membership of the customs union would be a less desirable outcome than that which is provided in the political declaration” of the deal already reached, May said. That deal “would provide for an independent trade policy for the U.K. that would allow us to strike our own trade deals around the world.”

Hammond Mulls Canceling Beijing Trip (12:35 p.m.)

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is considering whether to cancel a trip to China next week to deal with the Brexit situation at home, a Treasury spokeswoman said. He is due to visit his counterparts in Beijing on Feb. 18 to discuss a series of issues affecting China-U.K. economic and financial relations.

Hammond had been expected to discuss plans for a stock market connection between the two countries and wanted to fix a date for the postponed U.K.-China Economic and Financial Dialogue.

May: EU Talks Need ‘A Little More Time’ (11:45 a.m.)

The premier updated Cabinet on the talks she’s had with EU leaders ahead of her address to the Commons later, according to a statement released by her Downing Street office.

“She said it is clear that these discussions with the EU will need a little more time to conclude,” the statement said. The government won’t be putting May’s deal to a decisive vote in Parliament this week but will go ahead with votes on potential Plan B options as expected on Thursday.

May confirmed her promise to give Parliament another chance to vote on what happens next by Feb. 27, if no deal has been agreed -- and endorsed in the Commons -- before then.

May: ‘We Now All Need to Hold Our Nerve’ (8:45 a.m.)

“The talks are at a crucial stage,” Prime Minister Theresa May will say in her statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday, according to excerpts released by her office. “We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House has required and deliver Brexit on time.”

“By getting the changes we need to the backstop; by protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and environmental protections; and by enhancing the role of Parliament in the next phase of negotiations, I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support.”

Leadsom: May to Tell MPs to ‘Hold Their Nerve’ (8:30 a.m.)

Prime Minister Theresa May will tell politicians to “hold their nerve” on Brexit and allow her time to negotiate with the European Union, Cabinet Minister Andrea Leadsom said when asked about the premier’s statement to Parliament on Tuesday. The premier has begun a process to try to renegotiate the so-called Irish backstop -- the most contentious part of the divorce deal -- and needs a “bit more time” to do so, Leadsom said.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Leadsom said the EU’s repeated refusal to reopen the withdrawal agreement was likely part of a negotiating tactic, and a compromise would serve the interests of both sides.

“This is a negotiation and it would be an extraordinary outcome if the thing that the backstop is seeking to avoid -- which is a hard border in Northern Ireland -- if the EU were so determined to be so intransigent about it that they actually incur the very thing that they’re seeking to avoid,” Leadsom said.

The government is flexible about how changes are made to the backstop, Leadsom said. She declined to say when the government planned to bring a vote on the revised deal before Parliament, despite growing speculation it may not be until after an EU Council meeting in March.

Politicians from across Parliament should look to support May’s agreement to avert a no-deal Brexit, she said.


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