Theresa May will not mind being forced to extend Article 50 in fifteen day’s time by a cross parliamentary vote, if Tory Brexiteers try to veto whatever she brings back from Brussels. Long suspected as inevitable despite her constant denials, the evidence for this comes – would you believe it ? from that old faithful of hacks’ sources,” overheard in a bar” – in this case by ITN correspondent in Brussels , Angus Walker.
Last night, I’d been reporting on the meeting at the UK Ambassador’s Residence in Brussels between Michel Barnier and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
They’d been joined for their dinner by their respective teams, including Olly Robbins, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator.
I saw Olly Robbins leave the dinner and walk to his taxi as my cameraman and I were preparing to report live outside for ITV News.
Once we’d finished we returned to our hotel and decided to have a quick nightcap in the bar.
It was then, when we walked into the bar, we realised Olly Robbins was also in the same hotel. He too was having a drink.
He was with two colleagues in the bar and could be clearly overheard by other guests as he gossiped about Brexit, the cabinet and MPs.
He was speaking in such a manner that you didn’t have to listen hard to hear him. But to be clear, I was hearing chunks of their conversation and not every single word.
But during that conversation Olly Robbins said that, in his view, he expects the choice for MPs to be either backing May’s deal or extending talks with the EU.
He expects MPs in March to be presented with backing a reworked Brexit deal or a potentially significant delay to Brexit, he told colleagues last night.
“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension,” he was overheard saying. “In the end they will probably just give us an extension.”
Robbins added that he thought the fear of a long extension to Article 50 might focus MPs’ minds.. He suggested: “… Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March… Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one…”
On the backstop, Robbins outlined a strategy to satisfy Theresa May’s backbenchers, saying the European Commission would need to agree that the word “necessary” in the Northern Ireland protocol is defined as “necessary subject to the future trade deal”.
At the moment the text of the document says the backstop must “maintain the necessary conditions” for North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement.
It appears that Robbins and the prime minister want the Withdrawal Agreement amended so that the Good Friday Agreement would be less of an obstacle to the backstop being superseded by a new long-term trading relationship between the UK and EU.
David Trimble will prick up his ears at that one See Guido
Lord Trimble, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning architect of the Good Friday Agreement, has formally commenced legal proceedings against the Government to challenge whether the backstop is illegal under the Good Friday Agreement. Guido can reveal the formal letter sent to the Government Legal Department ahead of the Judicial Review challenge, which the Government must respond to by 22 February. The three possible defendants are identified as Karen Bradley, David Lidington or the Prime Minister herself.
Back to Angus…
What is also striking is how Robbins confirmed that the original plan was for the backstop, which would keep the UK in the customs union, was designed not as a “safety net” for the island of Ireland but as “a bridge” to the long-term trading relationship – which is something the prime minister has always denied.
The big clash all along is the ‘safety net’,” Robbins said. “We agreed a bridge but it came out as a ‘safety net’.”
These remarks by Robbins are explosive, because they will confirm the fears of Tory Brexiters that he and May always saw some form of customs union membership as the long term ambition for the UK’s trading relationship with the EU.
Had it stayed as a ‘bridge’ into a customs union that might have lessened Labour opposition to the deal.
He explained that the current talks in Brussels need to find a ‘way out’ for those who see the backstop as a “trap”.
This suggests that a cross party bid revised by Tory Europhile Oliver Letwin acting in concert with Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Nick Boles to extend the backstop would be doing just what Mrs May is counting on, if hardline Brexiteers look like thwarting her cliffhanging strategy to approve the withdrawal agreement only a couple of days before the Leave Day on 29 March. It means she wouldn’t have to U turn voluntarily but would be seen to be forced into it, if MPs approved it this time. The news of Robbins’ indiscretion, however glossed over, will infuriate the hardliners more than ever.
Under Letwin’s) plan, rebel Remainer Nick Boles will agree not to re-table his amendment with senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper for a Brexit delay to avoid No Deal on Thursday.
Their revised plot would see a new law rapidly passed that allows Parliament to order the Government to ask for an Article 50 extension, the length to be determined by the PM but approved by the Commons.
Another of the Tory plotters added: “We want to secure a specific commitment from the PM for parliamentary time to make sure February 27 really is high noon.
“If we get it, then there will still time be time to get the Cooper/Boles bill Royal Assent by mid-March, so we won’t need to press a vote on it this week.”
Around 25 Tory ministers who have vowed to block a no-deal Brexit met in secret in the Commons on Monday afternoon to agree a joint line ahead of the showdown
- The new Cooper bill would give May until Wednesday 13 March to get a deal through parliament. Assuming the bill passes through parliament (a big if, given the difficulty it might have in the Lords, where bills cannot be rushed through), if the PM has not got a deal through parliament by 13 March, MPs would either have to vote to agree a no-deal Brexit – or else they would have to vote to require the PM to seek an extension of article 50.
- It would be up to the government to decide how long the article 50 extension it would request would be. (Cooper’s previous bill on this specified a nine-month extension.)
Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP who tabled the non-binding amendment rejecting a no-deal Brexit that was passed by MPs two weeks ago, has said she will back the bill. She did not vote for the Cooper amendment two weeks ago and her endorsement is significant because it suggests Cooper’s new amendment will get wider Tory support than her previous one, which was backed by 17 Tories. The last version was defeated by 23 votes on 29 January.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London