May heads to Brussels to fix Brexit plan

The PM is trapped between those who want her to re-write the deal and EU leaders who’ll walk away if she does

LONDON • Theresa May (picture) was heading to Brussels for Brexit talks, trapped between her colleagues who want her to re-write the deal and European leaders who say they’ll walk away if she does.

The prime minister (PM) was scheduled to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday evening in an effort to make progress on an outline of the future trade deal the two sides want to strike.

She wants European Union (EU) leaders to sign off on the 585-page exit agreement, as well as the future partnership paper at a special summit in Brussels on Sunday.

But eurosceptics in her Tory party want the premier to rip up key parts of the deal and demand more concessions from the EU before the plan is signed off. The Opposition to the deal has gone down badly with EU leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, amid concern from diplomats that Sunday’s summit will need to be cancelled if May pushes for more changes.

Time for delays is running out. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is now just over four months away. May is staggering on, wounded at home by a succession of damaging resignations from her Cabinet from ministers who can’t stomach her deal.

At the same time, rank-and file Tories are trying to drum up enough support for a formal attempt to oust her as their leader. For now, their plot appears to be faltering.

Even so, with no automatic majority in Parliament, May is facing a colossal task to persuade enough members of the House of Commons to support her deal in a crunch vote expected in December. If she loses that vote, the UK will be on track to crash out of the EU with no deal.

Chairman of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Damian Collins told BBC’s Today programme yesterday that he will vote against May’s deal in its current form, adding his name to a list of Tories who won’t back it. If it does fail in Parliament, he said she should call either an election or another referendum.

Focus on the Future
When May arrives in Brussels to meet Juncker, scheduled for yesterday, their talks will focus on the so-called future partnership, the trade and security relationship that will replace EU membership. The details of that accord will be negotiated during a 21-month transition period starting on March 29.

But the terms of the separate exit treaty are already contentious.

At a Cabinet meeting in London on Tuesday, May’s ministers discussed alternative plans for the most difficult issue in the talks: The backstop guarantee for avoiding a customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Some pro-Brexit ministers are said to be contemplating quitting if May doesn’t renegotiate the terms of the divorce to ensure that the UK has the unilateral power to get out of any backstop arrangement for Ireland, if it wants to. Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, the pro-European Tory May brought back to the Cabinet last week, urged her colleagues to “take a fresh look” at what May secures in Brussels.

On Tuesday night, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s minority Conservative government, flexed its muscle in a warning to the premier.

For the second time in two days, the DUP refused to vote with the government in protest over May’s Brexit deal for Ireland.

Without the DUP’s support, the government was forced to accept Labour amendments to its budget law.

To make matters worse for May, the leaders of the Scottish National Party and the main Opposition Labour party — Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn — met up to plot their assault on May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday and were reported to have had a constructive discussion.

In Brussels, ambassadors from the other 27 EU countries received an update on the state of the talks. There are still outstanding issues relating to how much longer the transition period can be extended for, as well as the future of Gibraltar and fishing rights. – Bloomberg