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Brexit secretary says he has not personally discussed delaying UK's EU withdrawal

UK officials reported to be 'testing the waters' on an extension to the Article 50 notice, because of the impasse at Westminster

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 08 January 2019 14:53 GMT
Stephen Barclay won't deny Article 50 extension

The Brexit Secretary says he has not personally discussed delaying the UK’s departure from the EU, after a claim that the UK has been “putting out feelers”.

Stephen Barclay cast doubt on a report that the UK has been “testing the waters” on an extension to the Article 50 notice, beyond 29 March, because of the impasse at Westminster.

He pointed to several “practical” problems with an extension and insisted it remained Theresa May’s policy to carry out Brexit to the promised timetable.

The claim came after Margot James, the business minister, broke ranks to warn a pause to Article 50 would be needed if – as expected – the prime minister’s deal is defeated by MPs next week.

The Daily Telegraph reported discreet diplomatic contacts about an extension, described by one source as officials “just doing their homework”, had begun.

Asked, on BBC Radio 4, if Ms James had “let the cat out of the bag”, Mr Barclay replied: “That is not a decision the UK can take. It would require the consent of all 27 EU member states.

“It would also generate some very practical issues – for example the European Parliament elections are due at end of May.”

The Brexit secretary then said: “I’ve had no discussions with the European Union in terms of extension.”

He claimed the report was “talking more about EU officials actually” – when, in fact, it claimed UK officials had made the approach.

When asked, for a third time, if he could “deny the story”, Mr Barclay then replied: “I can, yes, because I can be very clear that the government’s policy is to leave on 29 March - the prime minister has made that clear on numerous occasions.”

The growing belief that an extension will be needed comes as Ms May struggles to win concessions from the EU to avoid a heavy defeat on her divorce deal, probably next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, she faces a likely defeat on Tuesday which would limit the government’s ability to make changes to fund a no-deal Brexit, if that is pursued.

A cross-party alliance of MPs will seek to amend the Finance bill, which enacts the Budget, in a bid to restrict the government’s ability to pursue a no-deal Brexit.

Tabled by Labour former cabinet minister Yvette Cooper and Conservative ex-education secretary Nicky Morgan, it would restrict Brexit-related tax changes without a parliamentary vote.

The measure is backed by the Labour party and also has the support of other senior Tories, including Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles and Sarah Wollaston.

Today, former Conservative leader William Hague used a newspaper column to urge Ms May to recognise that the Commons would never allow the UK to crash out without a deal.

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