Theresa May has left open the option of Britain staying under EU rules for an extra year in order to secure a final Brexit deal.
At a key session with 27 fellow European leaders in Brussels, the Prime Minister refused to rule out extending the so-called “transition” period from 21 months to a full three years.
The extension to March 2022 - just before the next general election - could give both sides the extra time needed to hammer out a long-term UK-EU trade and security relationship and break the deadlock over the Northern Irish border problem.
But the delay risks further inflaming some Tory backbench Brexiteers, as the UK would spend even longer under full EU rules and payments after it has formally exited the bloc next March.
Some Conservatives are already upset at the idea of the transition itself, which is currently due to end in December 2020. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said this week that even that was a “hideous implementation period”.
May faced a fresh row on Wednesday night when her Brexit department published a letter suggesting a Parliamentary motion on the final deal would not be ‘amendable’, leaving MPs with a choice of either the PM’s deal or no deal at all.
Critics claimed she was trying to ‘rig’ the vote. “No wonder Ministers will try to stymie any amendments to their motion on whatever miserable deal they might eventually bring back from Brussels,” Labour MP Chris Leslie said
The secret Brussels discussion was revealed by European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani, after he joined the pre-dinner session between May and the EU 27 leaders.
May did not present any new detailed plans, but she showed a “readiness to reach an agreement”, Tajani said.
He said that the European Parliament, which must endorse any Brexit deal sealed between London and the EU for it to take effect, was in favour of extending the post-Brexit transition period.
“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,” he said.
May told the meeting: “We’ve shown we can do difficult deals together constructively. I remain confident of a good outcome. The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”
An EU official later also confirmed to the Sun newspaper that the possibility of a transition extension was discussed.
“There were no new proposals. She also mentioned the transition period. She said the UK would be ready to consider the extension of the transition period.”
EU chief negotiatior Michel Barner floated on Tuesday the idea that a longer transition could buy the necessary time for the EU to try to make Britain’s compromise plans work.
May wants to avoid a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and Ireland by placing the whole of the UK in a temporary customs partnership with the EU until a long-term trade deal is concluded.
But Brussels feels the plan will need such complex policing and checking that it cannot be sorted in time for agreement this month.
It is also keen on preserving its own so-called ‘backstop’ plan to effectively keep Northern Ireland tied to EU rules in the event of any severe breakdown in relations between the UK and the EU27.
In the absence of any significant progress, the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ and accompanying future relationship statement may not be ready until an EU summit in December this year.
The House of Commons would then have little time to scrutinise the proposals.