EU rejects backstop changes as Jean-Claude Juncker complains of 'Brexit fatigue': Brexit News for Friday 22 February

EU rejects backstop changes as Jean-Claude Juncker complains of 'Brexit fatigue': Brexit News for Friday 22 February
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EU rejects backstop changes as Jean-Claude Juncker complains of ‘Brexit fatigue’…

Jean-Claude Juncker has said he is “not very optimistic” that the UK will leave the EU with a deal, as he admitted he was suffering from “Brexit fatigue.” The European Commission president issued the gloomy assessment the day after meeting Theresa May to discuss clarifying the controversial Irish backstop clause. Under the terms of the backstop, the UK would be tied to EU rules and regulations after Brexit, which critics say would neuter the benefits of leaving the bloc. It came as Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, held talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, on how to ensure the backstop would only be a temporary measure. Mr Cox had raised the prospect of inserting a clause into the Brexit deal which would allow the UK to leave the backstop without the EU’s permission, but this was swiftly rejected by Brussels as “absolutely” unacceptable. Mr Juncker said: “If no deal were to happen, and I cannot exclude this, this would have terrible economic and social consequences in Britain and on the Continent. But I am not very optimistic when it comes to this issue.” He added: “I didn’t intend to address the Brexit issue any more because I have something like a Brexit fatigue, you know? Because this is a disaster.” – Telegraph (£)
Jean-Claude Juncker: I’ve got Brexit fatigue – The Times (£)

…while Theresa May eyes a potential route out of the Brussels negotiation deadlock

The outline of a potential compromise deal on Brexit has begun to emerge in Brussels with both sides now working towards a new route out of the deadlock. EU diplomats confirmed they were looking at a new kind of legal instrument to sit alongside the existing withdrawal agreement, giving clarity over the temporary nature of the Irish backstop so hated by Tory backbenchers. They were in meetings with the UK’s attorney general Geoffrey Cox, who has already done groundwork on similar instruments before heading to Brussels for meetings alongside Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay. Brussels officials also signalled they were ready to redraft the language in the political declaration on future relations – the other half of the Brexit deal – with Mr Barclay having indicated earlier this week that Tory backbench proposals might be fed into it. But the difficulty of reaching a final deal still weighed heavily on talks on Thursday, with EU officials said to be holding firm against Mr Cox’s ongoing drive for a specific end date to the backstop. – Independent

Group of 100 Conservative MPs ready to force a Brexit delay if May’s deal fails…

Theresa May has been warned by a group of 100 moderate Tory MPs that they are prepared to rebel against the Government to force her to delay Brexit if she cannot reach a deal. The Brexit Delivery Group, which represents both Remain and Leave MPs, has called for a free vote next week on a backbench bid to take no deal off the table. Simon Hart and Andrew Percy, the leaders of the bloc, say in letter leaked to The Daily Telegraph that “numerous” members of the group have become “deeply troubled” by the prospect of a no deal Brexit. The letter to Julian Smith, the chief whip, says: “The reputation for competence of both the party and the Government depends on our ability to deliver an orderly exit, in line with the existing timescale. “Whilst we fully expect some changes to the backstop arrangements to be made by ministers in Brussels this week, there remains a chance that these will not satisfy some colleagues. Numerous members of our group have alerted us to their intention (should rejection of the deal look likely) to get behind amendments that are planned in the name of Oliver Letwin and others and which will have the twin effect of taking no deal off the table and delaying Brexit.” – Telegraph (£)

…with senior Tories reportedly poised to resign unless May rules out a no-deal Brexit…

Two former Conservative cabinet ministers today warned that they too would quit the party if Theresa May fails to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Justine Greening said that she was staying in the party “for the moment”, but warned that the Tories would no longer be a credible force if they simply became “a Brexit party”. She was joined by Dominic Grieve, the former attorney-general, who said that he would “cease to take the whip” if he thought the government was “about to take us into a no-deal Brexit”. Meanwhile the chancellor Philip Hammond warned Downing Street not to abandon the centre group in response to the defections. He said that the Conservative Party “must remain a very broad church” and a party that the defectors could eventually rejoin. Mr Hammond said that the Eurosceptic European Research Group consisted of a “relatively small hard core” within the parliamentary party and a “wider group of MPs who are sympathetic to some of the objectives of ERG but who recognise that, in this broad church that is the Conservative Party, compromises are necessary”. – The Times (£)
Rebel ministers will ensure parliamentary bid to delay Brexit is a ‘done deal’, warns Tory defector – Telegraph (£)
Theresa May faces ministerial revolt over no-deal Brexit – Guardian

…and Cabinet minister David Mundell’s pledge to do ‘everything I can’ to stop No Deal interpreted as a resignation threat

David Mundell has pledged to do “everything I can” to stop a no-deal Brexit as he issued a veiled threat to resign from Cabinet if he fails. The Scottish Secretary promised to do “whatever I deem necessary” to stop a no-deal Brexit without setting “strict parameters” about the action he was willing to take. But, pressed if he would quit the Cabinet or the Tory party if no deal became government policy, he said: “I’m most certainly not leaving the Conservative Party.” His coded threat to resign as Scottish Secretary came after it was reported that Mr Mundell was one of four Cabinet ministers who delivered an ultimatum to the Prime Minister that she must seek an extension to Article 50 if the Commons fails to approve a Brexit deal. It was said that he, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke told Theresa May they will otherwise back a plan tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Tories’ Sir Oliver Letwin for parliament to take control of the process. This would see MPs either having to vote to approve a no-deal Brexit or an extension of Article 50 if the Prime Minister fails to get her deal through parliament by March 13. – Telegraph (£)

Eurosceptic Tory MPs threaten to ‘end the Government’ if Brexit is delayed

Eurosceptic Conservative MPs have warned they will seek to “end the government” if Theresa May delays the UK’s departure from the EU, as the House of Commons prepares to vote on proposals to try to avert a no-deal Brexit. Members of the European Research Group of Tory MPs said that should Britain’s exit be pushed back, they will no longer vote for government legislation — in a move that could paralyse the prime minister’s administration. ERG members fear that MPs could next Wednesday back a proposal by former Labour minister Yvette Cooper to stop a no-deal Brexit by extending Article 50, the EU process under which the UK is meant to leave the bloc on March 29. Ms Cooper’s chances of success on February 27 have increased because some Europhile ministers are willing to support her amendment. Should Ms Cooper’s amendment be approved by MPs, it could force Mrs May to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50. But some members of the ERG, which consists of as many as 90 Eurosceptic Tories, have warned that Mrs May can no longer count on them turning out to vote for government legislation if she delays Brexit. – FT (£)

Jeremy Corbyn accuses Theresa May of running down the clock in no-deal brinksmanship over Brexit…

The prime minister is “running down the clock” and running a serious risk of a no-deal Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn warned today. The Labour leader emerged from a meeting at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels and said that his proposals were the only way to prevent Britain crashing out of the EU next month. “The danger of a no-deal exit from the EU for Britain is a very serious and very present one,” he said. “We from the Labour Party have made it very clear that we do not countenance a no-deal exit with it’s danger to jobs and supply chains in the manufacturing industry as well as food processing and many other industries.” Mr Corbyn held talks in Brussels with Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, and Martin Selmayr, secretary-general of the commission. After the meeting he claimed that European negotiators supported his plan for a “customs union with the EU and alignment to ensure market access” as the alternative to the prime minister’s deal. – The Times (£)

…as he seemingly inches closer to backing a second referendum…

Jeremy Corbyn is inching closer to backing a second referendum, with the Labour leader under intense pressure from senior figures including Keir Starmer to prevent more restive MPs from leaving the party and spike the guns of the splitters. At a Brexit policy meeting this week, Starmer spoke out in favour of an amendment drawn up by the Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, the Guardian understands. Under the terms of the amendment, MPs would support the prime minister’s deal in exchange for it being put to a public vote. Other supporters of a second referendum, including the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, have expressed more scepticism about the approach envisaged by the amendment. The idea of supporting a more straightforward, pro-referendum amendment also remains in play, the Guardian understands. “If there was a freestanding second referendum amendment on its own we would have to vote for it,” said one shadow minister. The eight former Labour MPs who split from the party this week to form the Independent Group in the Commons all back a second referendum, and have attacked Corbyn for what they perceive as a “betrayal” on Brexit. – Guardian
Back second referendum or face mass revolt, Jeremy Corbyn told – The Times (£)

…while the Independent Group might prop up May’s Government in return for a referendum on her deal

The Independent Group of Labour and Tory defectors could prop up Theresa May’s government in a confidence and supply arrangement, a leading member has said. This would include voting for any Brexit deal, if the prime minister put it to the public in a referendum. Gavin Shuker told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast it would be “in the national interest” to provide stability through any public vote, which could take a year to arrange. The group first made the offer in a meeting with the PM’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, last month. Shuker and then-Labour colleagues Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna were present, alongside then-Tory Anna Soubry. Lidington turned them down the offer, and all have now sensationally quit to join The Independent Group. But Shuker suggested the option was still on the table if May backs the Kyle-Wilson amendment, which supports her deal if it is put to the public vote in a confirmatory referendum. – Huffington Post

Priti Patel, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Maria Caulfield: The Government must honour the Brady Amendment

The future shape of the UK’s exit from the EU is still to be determined. After the Prime Minister’s deal was rejected by 230 votes, Conservative MPs from all wings of the party united around the Brady Amendment. We came together with a clear proposal to take forward to secure our exit from the EU, on time and in line with our commitments in the Conservative Manifesto. This will allow us to regain our independence, yet enjoy a positive relationship with the EU. It will bring an end to Brexit uncertainty and enable us to focus on building the global Britain that will not only be an economic powerhouse, but an example to the world of what we can achieve. And it was a message to the European Union that a clear majority in the UK Parliament could back the Withdrawal Agreement as long as the backstop is “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”. The Brady Amendment was also supported by the Government’s DUP partners. The Northern Ireland backstop has to be removed from a new draft agreement. Of great concern was the threat the backstop posed to the integrity of the Union via its provisions that Northern Ireland be subject to the jurisdiction of the EU whilst Great Britain would not. So too was the fact that the draft Agreement provided no unilateral exit mechanism whatsoever for the UK, and thus bound us indefinitely to the EU. – Priti Pate MPl, Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP and Maria Caulfield MP for ConservativeHome

Alan Cochrane: No future in the Cabinet for David Mundell unless Theresa May rules out ‘no deal’ Brexit

He didn’t exactly confirm it but he sure as hell didn’t deny it either. The message from David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland, yesterday was pretty clear. He wants a Brexit “No Deal” taken off the table by Theresa May or he’ll join at least three colleagues and vote for a motion in the Commons next week that will make it impossible for him to continue in her Cabinet. He may well have denied that he wants anything to do with what he calls the “soap-opera psycho-drama” of MPs leaving the Conservative Party, such as the three who’ve already defected to join their eight ex-Labour Independent Group colleagues, but he left few in any doubt that he’s perfectly prepared to walk out of the government over what he calls the “disaster” of a No Deal exit from the EU. However, whilst it may well be the accepted opinion that the resignations are doing more harm to Labour than the Tories, Mundell’s resignation from the Cabinet would be a calamity for the Scottish Tories. Alongside Ruth Davidson, still on maternity leave, Mundell has been responsible for the upsurge in the Tories’ revival north of the border which has seen them win 12 seats at the 2017 general election and leap frog Labour to be the second party in the Scottish Parliament. – Alan Cochrane for the Telegraph (£)

John Redwood: The undemocratic few in Independent Labour

The MPs that are defecting to the Independent group do not get on well with democracy. They all dislike the result of the People’s vote in 2016. They now wish to change their views on big issues, compared to the Labour and Conservative Manifesto platforms they stood on in 2017. If they are keen on democracy and a People’s vote, they should offer themselves for election in a series of by elections soon. An MP who changes party allegiance is not obliged to resign to create a by election. Indeed, if an MP resigns from his or her party to be independent because he or she thinks their party is failing to carry out promises they jointly made at the last election there is not even a moral pressure to hold a by election. But if an MP wishes to change party,  or to be a so called independent on a very different platform to the one they stood on for their original party, there is plenty of moral pressure to ask the electors their view. When Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless decided the Conservatives were not Eurosceptic enough they resigned to join UKIP. They did the decent thing, stood in by elections and won. It did not work out well for them personally, on the assumption they would have liked to carry on in Parliament. Mark lost his seat in the following General election, whilst Douglas ended up in substantial disagreement with the Leader of UKIP and also ceased to be an MP. – John Redwood’s Diary

Robert Peston: The ministers who told the PM they’d quit if she doesn’t rule out a no-deal Brexit

On my show last night, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid captured why nine of his ministerial colleagues have told the Prime Minister they may have to resign next week (though he won’t be joining them). Mr Javid said a no-deal Brexit would be damaging for the UK, he didn’t want it, and the risk of it had increased but there was no way to stop it. Well four cabinet ministers and five junior ministers agree on everything but that last point. In two separate meetings with the PM on Monday, they told her that either she has to agree to ask the EU to delay Brexit, if it looks impossible to get a deal through parliament by Brexit day on March 29, 2019 – or they’ll resign to vote for the Cooper Letwin amendment next week which would force her ask for a delay in those circumstances. As Tom Newton Dunn wrote in Thursday morning’s Sun newspaper, the four Cabinet ministers urging the PM to effectively rule out no deal were the justice secretary David Gauke, the Business Secretary Greg Clark, the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and the Scottish Secretary David Mundell. – Robert Peston for ITV News

Iain Martin: Tories can still be winners if ERG vote for May’s Brexit

The Tory party has also survived far worse than the departure to The Independent Group (TIG) of Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen. It was interesting to hear Allen, elected in 2017 with the aid of Tory activists and pledged back then to deliver Brexit, swearing this week to destroy the party that put her in the Commons. “If we do our jobs right, there won’t be a Tory party to go back to,” she told reporters. The word hubris sprang to mind. And egomania. Nonetheless, their departure should be taken seriously by Conservative MPs, and particularly members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, as they consider how to vote in the coming days on a Brexit deal. The situation is perilous. At least four more Tories are tipped to follow the TIG trio, while MPs say that around two dozen others will vote in any way required to block no-deal or demand the government seeks a delay. That could turn out to be a long delay, involving Britain taking part in this May’s European Parliament elections. Meanwhile, four Remain-supporting cabinet ministers are threatening to leave their posts if the government and the EU fail to find a compromise sufficient to avoid Britain exiting without a deal. Storming out of their departments (to do what?) might be thought an act of self-indulgence at a moment of national crisis. Yet they seem determined to do it and they are prepared to up-end the government if May’s deal does not pass and if she does not then negotiate with the EU an extension of Article 50. – Iain Martin for The Times (£)

The Times: Why Theresa May could yet get her Brexit deal through Commons

If Theresa May does manage to negotiate the bones of a Brexit deal, what are her chances of getting it through parliament? That is a question to which there is no clear answer — but her prospects are perhaps better than conventional wisdom might suggest. An analysis by the financial consultancy firm Cicero, which recently hired Nikki da Costa, Downing Street’s former director of legislative affairs, found that Mrs May could afford to lose the support of more than 30 Tory MPs and still get her deal through the Commons. The analysis looked at the past voting records of MPs on a range of recent Brexit debates. Some Tory MPs abstained on the government’s motion on its Brexit strategy and calling for more time to negotiate the backstop last Thursday, helping to inflict a damaging, if symbolic, defeat for Mrs May. Sixty-seven Conservative MPs abstained and five voted against the motion. This group was made up of European Research Group (ERG) supporters, Remainers, and some soft Brexiteers, and gives a broad sense of the number of MPs that Mrs May will need to win around. On the Labour side, the motion passed in January in support of Sir Graham Brady’s amendment of re-negotiating alternative arrangements to the backstop and the Yvette Cooper-Nick Boles amendment seeking to extend Article 50 provide the best evidence for the number for Labour MPs who could defy the whip and back the deal. – The Times (£)

Brexit in Brief

  • No-deal sets the stage for Brexit’s biggest negotiations – Alex Barker for FT (£)
  • ‘Hell’ comment was to get Brexiteers’ attention, says Donald Tusk – Politico
  • EU ‘expects May to be forced into three month extension’ as exit day looms – Express
  • Theresa May vows to stamp out ‘Purple Momentum’ in the Tory ranks to stop further defections – The Sun