Before travelling to France and Poland for talks with ministers, the Foreign Secretary raised the threats of a no-deal departure or “Brexit paralysis” if the EU and Britain were unable to strike a deal.
Brussels was steadfastly refusing to budge on the “backstop” for the Northern Ireland border but Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party were adamant that it must be axed or changed, or they will not back the withdrawal agreement.
Seeking to prise open the deadlocked talks, Mr Hunt stated: “No one who grew up with bombs every week in Northern Ireland but also in Harrods, Hyde Park and throughout the UK could ever countenance taking a risk with peace, and nor will we.
“But the best way to secure that peace is to do a Brexit deal that secures friendly relations between the UK and its neighbours. And that means sensible compromise on all sides.” Mr Hunt issued his plea as:
- Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom told Brexiteers they should not be “purist” as she stopped short of demanding that any new legal guarantees on the backstop be included in a reopened withdrawal agreement.
- Fears grew at Westminster over the dangers of Theresa May plunging the country, possibly accidentally, into a no-deal departure.
- Ministers prepared to jettison plans, if parliamentary time runs out, to get Brexit Bills — on fisheries, immigration and trade — passed into law before March 29.
- Business anger at the Government’s handling of Brexit grew, with some exporters starting to fly goods abroad rather than ship them, given uncertainties over future tariff rules after Brexit Day.
- The Maltese finance minister Edward Scicluna accused the Government of threatening to explode a political “atomic bomb” across the EU with a no deal.
Ms Leadsom refused to rule out the “meaningful vote” on Mrs May’s Brexit plans being held in late March, which fuelled suspicions that the Prime Minister was seeking to run down the clock to pile pressure on MPs and the EU to back her proposals.
But the Commons Leader risked angering hardline Tory Eurosceptics by refusing to insist that changes are made to the withdrawal agreement on the backstop, with Brussels expected instead to only offer a codicil or addendum on it.
“The point is to ensure that the UK cannot be held in a backstop permanently,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “How it’s achieved is not something to be purist about.” With Mrs May appealing to ministers and MPs to “hold their nerve” rather than move against her to give Parliament control over the Brexit process, Ms Leadsom added: “What the Prime Minister wants is a bit more time to be able to undertake what are now pretty crucial but delicate negotiations with the EU.”
The Prime Minister was making a statement to the Commons today but former Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith warned the Government to adopt the “Malthouse Compromise”, which would scrap the current backstop and have a transition period of up to three years.
“Otherwise I can’t see how the Government will achieve their withdrawal agreement,” he added.
MPs were mulling whether to attempt to force the Government’s hand on Brexit with various amendments but it was not clear if any of them would command a majority at this stage. Ministers who have threatened to resign rather than back “no deal” were understood to be prepared to give Mrs May until the end of this month to strike a deal.
But doubts remained over whether they would actually have the courage to see through their threats to resign.
There was anger among backbench MPs at Mrs May’s tactics.
“Anyone who believes Theresa May is doing anything other than running down the clock is completely naive,” tweeted Labour MP Owen Smith, who added: “The plan is totally transparent: bounce MPs into agreeing her Deal at the very last minute.”
Former Conservative business minister Anna Soubry responded: “He’s right and it’s wrong... and it must be stopped."