The EU has told Theresa May her ‘Plan B’ is dead in the water, insisting the Withdrawal Agreement is the “only possible divorce treaty”.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said there was no prospect of Mrs May successfully securing a time-limit on the Irish backstop
The comments would appear to increase the likelihood of Article 50 being delayed beyond March 29th, thereby delaying the date Britain actually leaves the EU.
Mr Barnier told the French newspaper Le Monde: “The British are at a moment of truth. They need time and we must respect this democratic time. But I think that an orderly agreement will be generally in conformity with the treaty which is there. It’s not just a speech, but 600 pages of legal security elements. This is the only possible divorce treaty.”
The backstop is a sticking point for many hardline Tory Brexiteers and Mrs May has repeatedly said she will go back to EU to renegotiate the details – this could potentially include adding a time limit.
However, Mr Barnier added: “The backstop is like an insurance. It is not there to be used. And if so, only provisionally. However, we cannot tie the backstop to a time limit.”
Mr Barnier also urged Britain to pursue a ‘softer’ Brexit, which would therefore place less emphasis on the backstop.
Mrs May has stated that she does not wish to extend Article 50, but she has also stated that No Deal would be an undesirable outcome from the negotiations.
But if she is unable to secure concessions from the EU around the backstop, it is difficult to see how she can persuade enough MPs to change their minds and vote for her deal, following her 230 vote defeat last week.
Labour has stated that it is ‘highly likely’ to support a delay to Brexit in the event of the Government failing to reach a deal with the EU.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell described the cross-party Bill – backed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Nick Boles – as ‘sensible’ and said it was ‘increasingly likely’ that his party would back it.
The group of MPs are seeking to give time for a Bill to suspend the Article 50 withdrawal process if there is no new deal with Brussels by the end of February.
Mr McDonnell told BBC Two’s Newsnight: ‘Yvette Cooper has put an amendment down, which I think is sensible.
‘It says to the Government you’ve run down the clock so much, it looks as though if you can’t get a deal by February 26… the Government will then have to bring forward proposals to extend that.
‘So I think it’s increasingly likely already that we’ll have to take that option because the Government has run the clock down.’
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In a break from usual procedures, the amendments will be voted on by MPs on January 29 in another day of high Brexit drama in the Commons which could put Mrs May under intense political pressure to change course.
Meanwhile, former Chancellor George Osborne compared no deal to Russian roulette, saying the prospect of Britain crashing out of the bloc means ‘the gun is held to the British economy’s head’.
Mr Osborne, who was speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said: ‘I think at the moment delay looks like the most likely option because at least that gives some space to explore whether there’s an alternative deal on the table.
‘I doubt there is, but that’s worth exploring, or whether we need to resolve this through a referendum.’