Theresa May is poised to travel to Brussels on Sunday
Cabinet ministers Geoffrey Cox and Stephen Barclay returned from Brussels yesterday without any sign of a breakthrough in the wrangle after EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rebuffed their demands for changes to the so-called “backstop” measures. Their failure to make progress left Theresa May facing a fresh crushing Commons defeat over her Withdrawal Agreement at Westminster next Tuesday. While EU and UK officials were continued the talks, angry Brexiteer MPs blamed the hard-line Tory Remainers pressing the Prime Minister to rule out a no-deal departure for the impasse.
One angry member of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Reform Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers said: “Without real changes to the deal, we are not going to vote for it.
“This is the fault of hard Remainers in the Cabinet like Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark who have forced no deal off the negotiating table. They have left the EU with nothing to fear from saying no.”
Another senior member of the ERG said: “Unless a miracle happens in the next few days, the Prime Minister is going to be defeated next week.
“It might be a stretch to beat the record defeat her Withdrawal Agreement suffered last time, but it won’t be far off.”
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rebuffed the demands for changes to the so-called “backstop” me
Tory Nigel Evans, another Brexiteer, said: “The EU has the scent of an Article 50 extension in its nostrils and knows it would come with billions of pounds of extra British taxpayers’ money.
“Frankly, if we haven’t been able to agree a backstop over the last two years, we’re not going to be able to agree one over the next two years.
“There is a lack of political will in Brussels that, sadly, has been reinforced by a Remain-dominated Parliament that has tied the Prime Minister’s hands. The EU needed to be told it was going to lose the £39billion divorce fee if it wasn’t prepared to negotiate sensibly but that hasn’t happened.
“The problem is the EU is expecting an extension because a Remain Parliament is ready to do just that.
Attorney General Mr Cox
“This is about about reversing Brexit, and it would be an absolute betrayal of what the British people voted for.
“The EU has to be given an incentive to come to a deal but at the moment the hard-line Remainers in Parliament and in the Cabinet have taken the Prime Minister’s armoury away.”
Downing Street officials described Tuesday evening’s talks involving Attorney General Mr Cox, EU Exit Secretary Mr Barclay and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier as “robust”, diplomatic code for a full-blown row.
On taking a train back from Brussels yesterday morning Mr Cox admitted there had been “very sensitive discussions”.
Eurosceptic and Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg
The Attorney General, who is leading the drive for legally-binding changes to the backstop, said: “We are into the meat of the matter now. We have put forward some proposals, very reasonable proposals, and we are into the detail of discussions.”
He added: “Both sides have exchanged robust, strong views and we are now facing the real discussions.”
British officials have taken heart in the fact negotiations between officials are continuing despite the clash between senior figures on both sides yesterday.
Mrs May is poised to travel to Brussels on Sunday to try to finalise a new legal document containing the backstop guarantees if a breakthrough can be made by the weekend.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman yesterday said the “meaningful vote” in the Commons set for next Tuesday will go ahead.
“We have made a commitment that we will hold a meaningful vote by March 12 and we stand by that absolutely.
“The discussion was difficult. It’s important to know that the talks are still ongoing.”
The spokesman added: “My understanding is that the talks were difficult and there was a robust exchange of views.”
EU Commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news conference in Brussels: “While the talks take place in a constructive atmosphere, discussions have been difficult.
“No solution has been identified at this point that is consistent with the Withdrawal Agreement, including the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland which, as you all know, will not be reopened.”
Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson yesterday indicated his party was still set to vote against the deal because of concerns about the backstop.
He told a Commons committee hearing: “If we finish up with a No Deal it will be as a result of the intransigence of the EU.”
Following the growing expectations of a Brexit delay, Tory Cabinet minister Michael Gove reminded MPs to prepare for the Commons Easter break to be cancelled to give more time to scrutinise legislation drafted to smooth the departure.
EU Exit Secretary Mr Barclay met Michel Barnier
He told a parliamentary committee: “The Chief Whip has reminded Conservative MPs that there may not be an Easter recess.”
Mrs May yesterday joked that Britain should give up EU membership “for Lent”. At Prime Minister’s Questions on the first day of the traditional Christian fasting period, she welcomed a call from Tory MP Simon Hoare for his colleagues to renounce their opposition to her Withdrawal Deal.
Praising his “very positive suggestion”, she added: “And then of course across this House, we would all be able to give up being a member of the European Union on the 29th March.”
EU and UK officials last night agreed to set up a three new working parties to look at high-tech “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border in a fresh attempt to find a long-term solution to the “backstop” row.
PM’s spokesman said the “meaningful vote” in the Commons set for next Tuesday will go ahead
They will include a group of technical experts in trade and customs, a separate group of business and trade union leaders and a third group of MPs and peers.
All three groups will discuss possible future arrangements for the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU that is due to be negotiated after Brexit.
The Treasury yesterday agreed £20million in funding to support research into ideas for border arrangements.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the EU said: “There is clear support for finding alternative arrangements to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.
“In adding business and technical expertise on top of civil service resource we will ensure we are strengthening the Government’s efforts to identify the necessary facilitations and technologies.
“The creation of these advisory groups now will mean that we can move at pace once negotiations with the EU begin.”