Brexit latest: Theresa May accused of running down clock to 'blackmail' MPs into backing plans at eleventh hour

NIcholas Cecil, Kate Proctor

THERESA MAY was today accused of seeking to run down the clock on Brexit to “blackmail” MPs into backing her plans at the eleventh hour.

Jeremy Corbyn hit out after the Prime Minister rejected Britain staying in the customs union with the European Union.

In a statement to the Commons, the Prime Minister pleaded for more time from MPs to try to reach a deal with Brussels over the Northern Ireland border backstop.

But Labour leader Mr Corbyn responded: “It appears the Prime Minister has just one real tactic, run down the clock hoping members of this House are blackmailed into supporting a deeply flawed deal.

“She’s playing for time and playing with people’s jobs, our economic security and the future of our industries.”

But Mrs May defended her stance and also reached out to Labour backbenchers to back her proposals. “Everyone in this House knows that the vote for Brexit was not just about changing our relationship with the EU, but changing how things work at home, especially for those in communities who feel they have been left behind.” She dismissed the idea of staying in the customs union, but the text of her speech said “the” not “a” customs union”. She added: “I would gently point out that the House of Commons has already voted against this.”

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt earlier warned EU leaders to compromise on Brexit to secure “friendly relations” and protect peace in Northern Ireland.

Before travelling to France and Poland for talks with ministers, Mr Hunt raised the threats of a no-deal departure or “Brexit paralysis” if the EU and Britain were unable to strike a deal.

Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons on Tuesday (PA)

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 allsides.” Mr Hunt issued his plea as:

Under pressure on Brexit: Theresa May (AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.