Senior Tories have warned Theresa May that she will never be forgiven by voters if she agrees to extend the Brexit transition period.
Mrs May admitted she is ‘ready to consider’ pushing back the end date following a crunch Brexit summit yesterday, leaving the UK subject to the bloc’s rules and obliged to pay in to EU coffers.
Discussing her position at a press conference in Brussels today, the Prime Minister insisted the extension to the implementation period is an ‘option’ rather than a ‘proposal’, in a fudge that is unlikely to assuage the concerns of Eurosceptics.
Also speaking to reporters in Belgium, European Council president Donald Tusk said the EU would be happy to extend the transition timeframe.
Striking a positive note, Mr Tusk said he thought negotiators were getting closer to securing a deal.
In an open letter published this morning, former cabinet ministers Boris Johnson and David Davis called on the PM to ‘deliver the Brexit which people voted for’.
They wrote: “We urge you to make clear that you will not bind the UK into the purgatory of perpetual membership of the EU’s customs union, whether by a backstop or any other route.”
The group called on Mrs May reject the Northern Irish backstop proposed by the EU and to ditch her own plan for an all-UK version.
The letter was also signed by ex-ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Priti Patel, as well as Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Conservative European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tories.
Mrs May told the European Council she was open to the extension floated by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier to give time to resolve the Irish border issue.
The change would mean the UK remaining within the single market and customs union and subject to EU rules and regulations for almost three years after the official date of Brexit in March 2019, and more than five years after the referendum vote to Leave.
Furious Brexiteers said that the move would delay yet further the moment when the UK could sign new trade deals around the world, and would cost taxpayers billions of pounds in additional contributions.
Nigel Farage tweeted that the admission meant the UK would ‘never leave’ the EU, and Tory MP Nadine Dorries repeated her call for former Brexit secretary David Davis to replace Mrs May as leader.
Mrs May’s acceptance of an extension to the transition period will take us to the next general election which may mean we never leave at all.
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) October 17, 2018
If Theresa May is asking for a longer transition period, she is stalling. It’s time to stand aside and let someone who can negotiate get on with it and deliver. I fully support DD as an interim leader. I’ve done my bit. It’s time for my colleagues to do theirs. #Brexit
— Nadine Dorries (@NadineDorries) October 17, 2018
We cannot find the money to fund our front line police properly. We cannot find the £2b for the vulnerable on UC, but we can mysteriously find billions to bung to the EU for the unnecessary extra year Clegg and Blair asked Barnier for to waylay Brexit??
This is serious.
— Nadine Dorries (@NadineDorries) October 17, 2018
So the government is going to propose a €17 billion extension to the transition but refuse a £2 billion bail out of Universal Credit- good luck with that! https://t.co/k7rglLSBGG
— Nick Boles MP (@NickBoles) October 17, 2018
Leaders of the 27 remaining EU leaders abandoned plans for a special Brexit summit in November yesterday , after Mr Barnier told them he needed ‘much more time’ to find a way to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
The EU wants Britain to agree that Northern Ireland was stay within the customs union and single market after December 2020 if no other solution can be found to prevent a hard border with Ireland.
Mrs May says she will not agree to this as it would essentially involve creating a border down the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Yesterday EU leaders gave Mrs May 20 minutes to make her pitch before discussing Brexit in her absence over a dinner of turbot cooked in wheat beer.
The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, said: “Both sides mentioned the idea of an extension of the transition period as one possibility which is on the table and would have to be looked into.”
Mrs May initially suggested an ‘implementation period’ of around two years after Brexit, to give the UK’s authorities and companies time to prepare for the new arrangements.
But she later accepted a 21-month transition offered by the EU, ending on the last day of December 2020.
While expressing their willingness to work for an orderly UK withdrawal, a number of EU leaders have said their countries were beginning preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
In a speech to the German parliament before travelling to Brussels, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the possibility of a Brexit deal was ‘still there’, but added that Berlin was making plans for a no-deal withdrawal.
And in Paris, Emmanuel Macron’s government published details of legislation to authorise preparations for a no-deal Brexit, which could see the restoration of customs checks and health inspections for animals at French ports, and a requirement for Britons to seek visas for stays of three months or more.