Trade secretary Liam Fox has conceded that the UK may have "no option" but to extend the date on which it leaves the EU, as the government battles to avoid another parliamentary defeat over its Brexit deal.
Fox, a Brexiter, said the while he wanted Britain to leave the EU on the scheduled departure date of 29 March, he was prepared to accept a delay if it meant ensuring a “smooth Brexit”.
Asked by the BBC if he would be breaking a promise that the UK will leave at the end of March, he said: “I hope we will be leaving at the end of March…but if we have no option in order to deliver a smooth Brexit then so be it.”
Attorney general Geoffrey Cox has been tasked with extracting concessions from the EU on the issue of the Irish backstop, the insurance policy that is designed to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland by keeping the UK in a temporary customs union.
Tory Brexiters want the government’s chief legal adviser to persuade the EU to provide a number of clarifications.
In a list of terms sent to May – which Fox called a “genuine attempt to find common territory" – members of the hardline ERG called for a “clearly worded, legally binding treaty clause” that overrides the text of the withdrawal agreement; language that moved beyond restating the “temporary nature of the backstop” to Cox’s legal advice that it would “endure indefinitely”, and a “clear and unconditional route of out the backstop if trade talks fail”, including through a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism. The ERG letter was first revealed in the Sunday Times.
Downing Street remains hopeful that it can convince enough Tory Brexiters to back May, while also attracting the votes of Labour rebels who do not want to be seen blocking Brexit. Yesterday former Labour minister Caroline Flint said 70 Labour MPs could rebel.
Flint told Sky News: "If there's a choice between no deal and an improved deal then we should seriously consider an improved deal."
Meanwhile, prisons minister and May ally Rory Stewart urged MPs to back the deal, arguing that an extension to Article 50 – the mechanism by which the UK leaves the EU – would drive Britain into a “zombie world”.
“All those other options are worse than the PM's deal and I hope people are focusing on this,” he said.
"[An extension] would put us in a world in which we were still in a zombie world, not knowing where we were going.”
Over the weekend key EU figures hinted that a delay to the UK’s departure from the EU was inevitable. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier told Spanish newspaper El Mundo that a “technical extension” to Brexit was needed, while the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said a delay until June was looking “very likely”.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair also ramped up his call for a Brexit delay and a second referendum to break the political deadlock.
Over the past week the pound has rallied, while analysts at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan slashed the probability of the UK leaving without a deal to 10 per cent. Analysts at Goldman said the Prime Minister had created a “clear route” for parliament to rule out a no-deal Brexit.