“Cox ‘s codpiece is empty” scoffed a leading Brexiteer tonight in a sign of hardening opinion against the Attorney General’s chances of success to secure a legal formula to satisfy the Tory right and the DUP. Ideas for a convoluted arbitration process now under discussion do not impress. By this reckoning the best that can he hoped for next week is a meaningful vote in favour of extending Article 50. If that happens Brexit is up for grabs. Tonight in a remarkable development by present Westminster standards the Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour team have been talking to Tory soft Brexiteers about supporting a soft Brexit next week.
Jeremy Corbyn met Conservative former ministers promoting a Norway-style Brexit on Wednesday, raising the possibility that Labour could join a cross-party majority to force Theresa May’s hand.
Former ministers Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin, as well as Labour MPs Lucy Powell and Stephen Kinnock, met Corbyn after prime minister’s questions to discuss their “common market 2.0” plan. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer was not present.
A Labour spokesman said they had met to “discuss how to achieve a deal that would be good for jobs and could bring leave and remain voters together”.
“We went through the areas of commonality and the areas of difference,” said Powell. “Everyone recognises that there needs to be another serious option on the table. We have always felt that we could attract support from both leavers and remainers.”
On the state of the Brusssels negotiations the papers are unanimous.
Theresa May’s Cabinet is resigned to her Brexit deal being defeated by up to 100 votes next week after talks in Brussels collapsed without progress on Wednesday.
Downing Street is already making plans for a third “meaningful vote” on the deal on the assumption that Tuesday’s vote is lost, and Mrs May is considering making a major speech on Friday to plead for support from MPs.
Theresa May’s eleventh-hour search for a revised Brexit deal has run into a wall of opposition in Brussels, raising fears in Downing Street that the UK prime minister is about to lose all control over the exit process.
Three and half hours of talks in Brussels between Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator, Mr Cox and Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, ended in a bad-tempered stalemate.
Negotiations will now go to the wire this Friday, running into the weekend, to try to find guarantees that will enable Mr Cox to change his legal advice on the Irish backstop before the crucial Brexit vote in the House of Commons next Tuesday.
Mr Barnier gave the European Commission’s weekly meeting a “downbeat” assessment of the talks this morning, according to one source.“I am still determined,” he said, after the meeting. One source close to the negotiations said that the talks had “circled around and around and around again with no meeting of minds”, as a House of Commons “meaningful vote” on the withdrawal agreement looms in six days’ time.
“There is no sense of certainty on how to give sufficient assurances so Mr Cox can change his legal advice. Both sides agree this is critical to getting the deal over the line,” said a senior British source.
“Part of the problem is the EU side remains unconvinced that the prime minister can win the vote. That is potentially a big mistake.”
But that is a circular argument. She can’t win the vote without their legal concessions.
Katy Balls of the Spectator reports on the machinations within the Brexiteer camp.
This afternoon May’s Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell held a meeting with ministers setting out the narrative for next week but within cabinet there is increasing pessimism that May won’t pass her deal next week. There are rebels returning to the fold, but at nothing like the speed that would be needed to reverse a 230-vote defeat. When it comes to winning over the more hardline Brexiteers, there remains a gulf between what type of changes the European Research Group believe would be acceptable and what the government believes is possible.
At exactly the point Downing Street had hoped Brexiteers would get into line, there is renewed optimism among the European Research Group that they can vote down May’s deal a second time and still achieve a clean Brexit. Various ideas are doing the rounds but they include voting down the deal and then urging May to whip MPs to put no deal back on the table and using a long Article 50 extension to install a Brexiteer prime minister to turn things around. While it’s easy to pick holes in these plans, the problem is many Leave MPs feel the current deal is so bad they may as well take a gamble in the hope of something better. Unless May can convince these MPs otherwise, the Prime Minister is on course for a second defeat on her government’s flagship Brexit policy.
Meanwhile the Sun’s pol ed Tom Newton Dunn tweets in red top style.
Meanwhile in London, ministers begin to panic and predict “a party meltdown nationwide” if PM’s deal falls next week. Brexiteer minister: “If we lose on Tuesday, absolutely everything is going to be shit”.
RTE News has the Brussels angle.
The commission said there was still “no solution” to the impasse after the meeting yesterday in Brussels between the European Union’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, with barely over three weeks to go before Britain’s scheduled exit on 29 March.
Talks by lower-ranking officials were expected to continue today, but there was no clear schedule yet for further negotiations between Mr Cox and Mr Barnier.
Mr Barnier told the weekly meeting of the College of Commissioners in Brussels that the negotiations were proving “difficult” and a way forward had not been found.
Mr Cox said that yesterday’s discussions in Brussels were “robust” and detailed, and would be resuming soon.
Diplomats speculated that, if EU and UK negotiators could seal a deal over the weekend, Mrs May could come to Brussels on Monday to give it political endorsement and take it back to London just a day before the House of Commons votes on it.
“It’s unlikely there would be a deal before the weekend,” an EU official said.
“We are preparing for a working weekend.”
The EU’s 28 leaders including Mrs May will decide at a 21-22 March summit whether to extend the Article 50 negotiating period beyond 29 March.
“How long an extension will depend on the House of Commons vote,” the diplomat added.
The EU will be watching the British parliament’s action next week but few in Brussels believed the deal would be ratified by deeply split UK MPs in their second go at it, which comes two months after they esoundingly rejected the package.
With 23 days left until Brexit and fears that an abrupt divorce without a pre-negotiated settlement could spell economic turmoil, the EU is now nudging London to delay its departure.
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