Brexit: Tory anger as Theresa May aide Olly Robbins overheard discussing long Article 50 delay

Olly Robbins appears to reveal the strategy – contradicting prime minister’s insistence that she is ready to crash out of the EU without a deal if necessary

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 13 February 2019 11:25 GMT
What does a no-deal Brexit mean?

Theresa May is under pressure over evidence she is planning a “long” delay to Brexit if MPs still refuse to back her deal, after her chief negotiator was overheard in a Brussels bar.

Anti-EU Tories reacted angrily after Olly Robbins appeared to reveal the strategy – contradicting the prime minister’s insistence that she is ready to crash out of the EU without a deal if necessary.

“Extension [of Article 50] is possible but if they don't vote for the deal then the extension is a long one,” he was heard saying, by an ITV News journalist.

“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension. In the end they will probably just give us an extension.”

The comments also appeared to confirm that Ms May, as a cabinet minister hinted yesterday, plans to delay the critical decision until the eve of the scheduled departure day on 29 March.

Steve Baker, the deputy leader of the hardline European Research Group of Tory MPs said Mr Robbins should be “appalled by this story”. Downing Street declined to comment.

The row came as the ERG also warned it could vote against the government’s standstill motion on Brexit in a Commons debate on Thursday – which would plunge Ms May into a fresh crisis.

The motion backs “the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January”, which – as well as calling for the Irish backstop to be replaced – also saw a separate vote ruling out a no-deal Brexit.

An ERG source told the Brexit Central website that the motion passing would “destroy our leverage in the critical negotiations with the EU”, adding: “This is utterly chaotic, bordering on farce.”

In the overheard conversation, Mr Robbins also sparked a second controversy by suggesting the backstop – designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland – was conceived as a “bridge” to the future relationship.

The comment was seen as revealing it is meant as the basis of a permanent relationship, which could keep the UK in an EU customs union, something Ms May denies.

An ERG spokesman added: “Who's in charge of this? Either the prime minister is and this is what she wants, or she isn't and is just doing what the civil service tells her.”

In his report, the ITV News reporter admitted he could not hear every word spoken by Mr Robbins and that the bar was too noisy to make a recording.

Asked whether the comments reflected government policy, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “No.”

He said: “The prime minister has been very clear that we are committed to leaving on 29 March.”

The Brexit Secretary, who met senior MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday, added: “What came over was actually that it is not in anyone's interests to have an extension without any clarity. It is actually very disruptive to the European Parliament.”

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