Theresa May (pictured arriving at Downing Street today) told Jeremy Corbyn his demand for Britain to stay in the EU’s customs union would hamper free trade deals – but stopped short of ruling it out
Boris Johnson today offered Theresa May a sliver of hope by saying he could said he could vote for her deal – if she can get a time limit on the backstop.
But the former foreign secretary insisted the mechanism would need to expire before the next general election in 2022.
The intervention came as the PM moved to quell Tory fears that she is about to cave into Jeremy Corbyn’s demand for a permanent customs union with the EU.
Mrs May had caused panic in Tory ranks by appearing to open the door to a grand bargain.
But Downing Street insisted the PM was ‘absolutely clear’ that she will not support the call from Labour.
‘We must have our own independent trade policy,’ her spokesman said.
Mrs May sparked the furore by penning a letter to Mr Corbyn saying his call for the UK to stay in a customs union would hamper free trade deals – but stopped short of ruling it out.
Mrs May also said the Tories were ‘prepared to commit’ to new laws to protect workers’ rights after Brexit – a key demand of Labour and the unions.
But the hints at a cross-party pact, which could frustrate opposition from hardline Tory Eurosceptics, risked causing a Cabinet meltdown – with several senior figures including Liz Truss and Liam Fox thought to be ready to quit.
Brussels has so far flatly dismissed pleas from Mrs May to reopen the divorce package that they painstakingly thrashed out over two years, despite it being humiliatingly rejected by MPs last month.
Mrs May is now due to make a statement updating MPs on her progress renegotiating tomorrow, before the latest round of crunch votes are held on Thursday.
Boris Johnson (pictured in Westminster today) insisted staying in a customs union permanently would mean the UKJ being ‘essentially a colony’
In her letter to Mr Corbyn (pictured on Saturday), May also confirmed that ministers are ‘examining opportunities’ to pour millions into deprived Brexit-voting Labour constituencies
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Mr Johnson insisted staying in a customs union permanently would mean the UK being ‘essentially a colony’.
‘It’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn… he’s done a complete U-turn,’ he said.
‘He now wants to frustrate Brexit very largely by staying in a permanent customs union.’
Mr Johnson indicated he would be willing to accept a time limit on the backstop as his price for backing Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement.
‘The argument is now about how to get out of the backstop. And how to make sure that the UK isn’t locked in that prison of the customs union,’ he said.
Up to 60 Labour MPs ‘looking for ways’ to back May’s Brexit deal
Up to 60 Labour MPs are ‘actively looking for ways’ to support the PM’s Brexit deal, it was claimed today.
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy said she would not support Theresa May’s plans in their current form.
But she said many of her colleagues were keen to get a package agreed.
The comments came as Mrs May confirmed she is ready to give commitments on the environment and workers’ rights as she woos Opposition backing.
There have also been claims the government is looking to pump money into Brexit-voting areas to secure votes.
Ms Nandy told the BBC’s Politics Live 40-60 Labour MPs were ‘actively looking for ways to support this at the moment’.
‘I think that you would need to have a time limit.’
But asked if changes to the backstop proposals could come in a separate codicil to the Withdrawal Agreement, Mr Johnson said: ‘I don’t think that would be good enough.’
In her letter to Mr Corbyn, Mrs May confirmed that ministers are ‘examining opportunities’ to pour millions into deprived Brexit-voting Labour constituencies. The move is seen as vital in winning the votes of Labour MPs for her deal.
The Prime Minister also proposed further talks with the Labour leader and his team in the coming days to discuss issues around the customs union, the single market and ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish backstop.
Her letter came hours after she was warned she could face a Cabinet walkout if she changes tack to pursue a customs union.
Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss yesterday refused three times to say whether she would remain in the Cabinet if a customs union became official policy.
Asked whether she would resign, she told Sky News: ‘I absolutely do not think that should be our policy.’
Fellow Cabinet ministers Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt are also said to be implacably opposed to any shift towards a customs union.
Dr Fox warned today that Labour proposals for a customs union with the EU are ‘not workable’.
Liam Fox (pictured signing a trade deal in Switzerland today) has warned that Labour proposals for a customs union with the EU are ‘not workable’
‘Of course we always want to work with the opposition but the opposition has put forward some ideas that are not workable,’ he told reporters in Bern at the signing of a new trade deal with Switzerland.
‘The idea that you can have a customs union with the EU and at the same time, as an outside country, have an effect on EU trade policy is to not understand the EU treaties.
‘It is very clear from the European Union that non-EU members do not have a say in EU trade policy so to pretend that you could do so is a dangerous delusion.’
Minister fuels talk of ‘grand bargain’ with Labour on Brexit
Prisons minister Rory Stewart fueled talk of a Brexit compromise with Labour today.
The Remainer MP said both he and Theresa May believed it was possible to find common ground with the Opposition.
But he stress that it would not involve a customs union with the EU – despite that being Jeremy Corbyn’s key demand.
‘I think she feels, as I do, that there isn’t actually as much dividing us from the Labour Party as some people suggest,’ Mr Stewart told the BBC.
He denied there was any ‘shifting of red lines’, pointing out that the PM has repeatedly ruled out a customs union.
Prisons minister Rory Stewart fueled talk of a compromise with Labour today, saying: ‘I think she feels, as I do, that there isn’t actually as much dividing us from the Labour Party as some people suggest.’
But he denied there was any ‘shifting of red lines’, pointing out that the PM has repeatedly ruled out a customs union.
Many Brexiteers believe Mrs May is merely paying lip service to the idea of a pact with Mr Corbyn to frighten them into backing her deal.
Pressure is mounting on Mrs May as she faces revolts from both wings of the Conservative Party, with less than seven weeks to go until the UK is due to leave the EU.
Amid the deadlock, the premier is desperately playing for time to get more concessions from Brussels on the Irish backstop.
Labour is trying to use the latest round of crunch Commons votes on Thursday to force a decisive showdown on Mrs May’s deal by the end of the month, whether or not she has managed to overhaul it.
However, Cabinet minister James Brokenshire suggested yesterday that Mrs May will try to delay the so-called ‘meaningful vote’ until next month.
Instead No10 is promising another round of indicative votes by February 27, hoping that will be enough to persuade wavering Tory Remainers that they can hold off staging an all-out rebellion against no-deal Brexit.
There is growing suspicion that Mrs May’s tactic is to get as close as possible to March 29 before staging the vote, giving MPs a stark choice between the package she has thrashed out or crashing out without a deal.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay is preparing to fly to Strasbourg later to reopen talks with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, for the first time since Mrs May’s Commons defeat last month.
Ex-Brexit Secretary David Davis was spotted leaving Downing Street after a meeting today
Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss (file picture) yesterday refused to answer whether she would resign in the Cabinet if a customs union became official policy
What are the options for reworking the Irish border backstop?
The EU has flatly dismissed calls for the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened.
But Theresa May has promised MPs that she will somehow get legally-binding changes that satisfy concerns about the Irish border backstop.
Here are some possible options for how the PM might seek to get through the impasse.
A unilateral exit clause
Prominent backbenchers including former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has pushed Mrs May to seek a unilateral get-out from the backstop.
The current mechanism can only be deactivated through a joint review system – although the EU insists it is technically ‘temporary’.
But Brussels has insisted that an ‘insurance policy’ that can be ended by one side is not acceptable.
A hard end date to the backstop would allay the fears of most Tory MPs – as long as it is not too far in the future.
Boris Johnson has suggested he could vote for the deal if she manages to get a time limit, although he also said it should conclude before the next election in May 2022.
The former foreign secretary also unhelpfully insisted a legal ‘codicil’ – an amendment which would run alongside the Withdrawal Agreement – would not be enough to win him over and he wants the whole thing unpicked.
Again, the EU has insisted it will not agree to a backstop that is time limited.
The ‘Malthouse Compromise’
Tory Remainers and Brexiteers have been working on a proposal to replace the backstop with a looser, Canada-style free trade arrangements. The plan would deploy technology in a bid to avoid a hard border.
But Brussels has already dismissed the technogical solutions as ‘magical thinking’, saying the systems needed do not yet exist.
Guarantees that the backstop will only be ‘temporary’
The EU’s top official, Martin Selmayr floated the idea of ‘unzipping’ the Withdrawal Agreement and inserting new guarantees about the ‘temporary’ nature of the backstop during meetings with MPs.
He suggested the text of recent letters from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker could be cut and pasted in without reopening other terms.
But that would be highly unlikely to satisfy Brexiteers.
Mrs May, who left church yesterday after playing fetch with a worshipper’s dog, risks angering Eurosceptic MPs by flirting with Labour.
But it might persuade some to back her deal for fear of being left with an even softer Brexit.
Downing Street last night insisted the PM remained committed to securing an ‘independent trade policy’ after Brexit, which would be incompatible with a customs union.
A source said: ‘We are very clear that in order to have trade deals, which are a central part of the Brexit deal, you cannot be a member of a customs union.’
The PM’s letter is a direct response to Mr Corbyn’s call last week for the Government to adopt a ‘permanent and comprehensive’ customs union, ‘close alignment’ with the single market, and the automatic acceptance of all EU laws on workers’ rights in future.
In her reply, Mrs May welcomes Mr Corbyn’s willingness to ‘find a deal… not to seek an election or second referendum’.
May’s letter to the Labour leader came hours after she was warned she could face a Cabinet walkout if she changes tack to pursue a customs union
The PM warns that his customs plan would give few economic benefits over her own deal while leaving the UK with far less freedom to strike trade deals.
Mrs May says the EU has insisted that ‘completely frictionless’ trade is only possible if the UK signs up to the single market, adding: ‘This would mean accepting free movement, which Labour’s 2017 manifesto made clear you do not support.’
But she does not rule out further compromise if her own deal is defeated.
Mr Brokenshire yesterday told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that MPs would be given another chance to vote on how to take Brexit forward on February 27, regardless of whether or not a deal has been struck with Brussels.
The Prime Minister with her husband Philip after a church service near her Maidenhead constituency yesterday
The move is designed to persuade wavering Tory Remainers not to join a cross-party rebellion designed to delay Brexit to prevent a possible No Deal exit.
But Mr Brokenshire refused to say whether a ‘meaningful vote’ on the revised deal would be held this month.
One Cabinet source predicted MPs would not get another vote on the final deal until deep into next month – potentially just days before the UK is due to leave on March 29. ‘She is taking it to the wire,’ the source said.
Mr Barclay will update Mr Barnier today on the UK’s proposals for tackling the controversial Irish backstop, including setting a legal time limit, giving the UK a unilateral exit clause or agreeing ‘alternative arrangements’.
CBI chief Carolyn Fairbairn yesterday hit out at the prospect of further delay, saying: ‘I think we really are in the emergency zone of Brexit now… this is danger time.’
And Tory Remainer Sarah Wollaston called on like-minded ministers to quit the Government this week ‘if they are serious about preventing No Deal’.
In a report for Lawyers for Britain, Martin Howe, QC, said the UK could face a string of demands from EU leaders if it seeks to extend Article 50.
He wrote: ‘It is likely that onerous conditions will be imposed, whether by the EU collectively or by individual member states – each of whom has a veto.’
What will happen next in the unfolding Brexit drama?
MPs will hold another round of votes on Brexit.
They are not due to pass judgement on Theresa May’s deal – instead debating a ‘neutral’ motion simply saying that they have considered the issue.
However, a range of amendments are set to be tabled. They could include proposals to delay the Brexit date beyond March 29.
Labour is pushing a change that would force another ‘meaningful vote’ on the PM’s Brexit deal by February 26, regardless of whether she has finished renegotiating the package with the EU.
Mrs May could have an opportunity to seal a new package with fellow EU leaders at a joint summit with the Arab League in Sharm el-Sheikh.
However, it is not clear how many will attend the gathering – or whether she will have completed the deal by then.
Downing Street is trying to head off a potential Tory Remainer mutiny by promising MPs will get another set of votes by this date regardless of whether there is a final deal.
The PM will attend a scheduled EU summit in Brussels that would effectively be the last opportunity to get agreement.
Some MPs fear that Mrs May is trying to delay for as long as possible, and might even try to hold a make-or-break vote in the Commons on March 26. That would be just 72 hours before Brexit, giving them a very stark deal-or-no-deal choice.
11pm, March 29
The UK is due to leave the EU with or without a deal, unless the Article 50 process is extended with approval from the bloc’s leaders, or revoked to cancel Brexit altogether.
No Deal could cost Germany 10,000 jobs, experts predict
A No Deal Brexit would cost 100,000 jobs in Germany, experts predict.
The academic study says British imports from the EU could plunge by 25 per cent if the UK leaves without a deal next month.
Concern about the impact of a No Deal Brexit has put mounting pressure on Angela Merkel to help broker concessions that will enable Theresa May to get the agreement through Parliament.
Last week, the German chancellor urged EU leaders to ‘be creative’, saying ‘everybody is willing’ to help find a solution.
The study, cited by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, suggests that Germany would be among the foreign countries hit hardest by a No Deal Brexit.
It estimates that more than 100,000 jobs would be put at risk ‘either directly or indirectly’.
This includes 15,000 jobs in the German car industry alone.
‘In no other state is the effect on total employment as great as Germany, which affects around 100,000 people,’ said study co-author Oliver Holtemöller, of the Halle Institute for Economic Research.
‘The employment effects of a hard Brexit would be noticeable above all at the automobile locations.’
France is the next country in line to feel the heaviest effects of a No Deal Brexit, with 50,000 jobs on the line, according to the study.
Ireland and Malta would also be hit hard.
Overall, the study estimates that more than 600,000 people worldwide could feel the effects of a No Deal exit.
Meanwhile, a think-tank said household incomes in Britain have taken a £1,500 hit since the Brexit referendum in 2016.
Higher than expected inflation also contributed to the fall in the average disposable income of families in the UK, according to a report by the Resolution Foundation.
It was ‘hard not to conclude that Brexit must be the single biggest factor’.