Theresa May is heading to Europe to appeal to France and Germany for an extension to Brexit talks that could see Britain locked into what furious Tory rebels have branded “second class EU membership”.
The prime minister will plead with President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel for a delay to the UK’s departure to avoid crashing out without a deal. She will likely be forced to accept strict conditions.
Mr Macron has indicated he could not stand the UK using its continued presence to disrupt EU business as suggested by some Brexiteers, with particular concern about the bloc’s budget being obstructed.
As well as promising not to interfere in EU business, Ms May will have to convince European leaders that cross-party talks with Labour are progressing, despite Jeremy Corbyn criticising the PM for failing to compromise on her Brexit “red lines”.
Tory Brexiteers are already seething at the prospect of a further delay to Britain’s departure, let alone the idea that it would be to secure a deal approved by Mr Corbyn.
One cabinet source told The Independent: “The idea that we would go through all that to then be in some sort of second class EU membership, where we’re in but without a say on anything, how has Brexit come to that?”
A meeting of top ministers in Downing Street is said to have been punctuated by a “rant” from senior cabinet eurosceptic Andrea Leadsom about the dire state of Brexit.
Signs of tensions boiling over also emerged when Conservative Brexiteer Mark Francois MP called for a vote this week to allow Tory MPs to demonstrate they have “lost faith” in Ms May’s leadership.
But with the party splitting behind her, she will head to Berlin for a meeting with Ms Merkel at lunchtime on Tuesday and then on to Paris later in the afternoon.
France has warned that the UK must provide a plan with “clear and credible political backing” in Westminster if it is to receive a further extension to the two-year Brexit process, which was initially intended to end on 29 March.
But Mr Macron has also promised that his country “will never abandon Ireland”, in an apparent indication that he will stop short of insisting on a no-deal Brexit this Friday – the new official departure date.
It means that to secure the delay – likely to be much longer than the one Ms May wants – the prime minister will have to give guarantees to Mr Macron that the UK will not use its continuing presence as a departing EU member to disrupt the bloc’s business.
One government insider said: “They read the British papers in Europe, they know some people here say that if we stay in for the rest of the year we should create havoc.”
In her letter to Mr Tusk on 5 April requesting an extension, Ms May laid the ground for the guarantees by promising the UK would continue to act “as a constructive and responsible [EU member] in the accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation throughout this unique period”.
Ahead of meetings with the two leaders expected on Tuesday, the prime minister also advocated an extension with other key figures including Dutch PM Mark Rutte, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk.
Mr Rutte said it would be “crucial” for the EU countries to know “when and on what basis” the UK would ratify its withdrawal agreement. And he said they would need assurances of “sincere cooperation” from London before granting an extension.
Mr Tusk has recommended a one-year extension to the Brexit process, with a break clause allowing an earlier departure if a withdrawal deal is ratified in Westminster.
Brexit talks between the government and the Labour Party were resuming on an official level on Monday evening after four days of little apparent progress.
Asked if the government was being serious about the discussions, Mr Corbyn said: “Talks have to mean a movement and so far there has been no change in those red lines.”
He added: “We are looking for movement. Because we do not want to see a crashing out of the EU with no deal.”
In jointly released statements, Downing Street and Labour said “technical” talks were restarting after dialogue by phone and email over the weekend, with further talks likely for Tuesday.
But the much mooted suggestion that the PM would offer Mr Corbyn a customs union as an incentive to back her Brexit deal was yet to come on Monday evening.
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