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Brexit: Theresa May pours cold water on move to renegotiate deal as cabinet ministers call for rewrite

The prime minister will visit Jean-Claude Juncker this week for further talks focussing on the outline future relationship

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Sunday 18 November 2018 11:44 GMT
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Theresa May: 'It’s the future relationship that delivers on the Brexit vote. It’s the future relationship that actually says this is the right deal for the future for our country'

Theresa May has played down hopes of changing Britain’s draft withdrawal deal in a move that will concern Brexiteer cabinet ministers demanding it be rewritten.

The prime minister announced that she would visit European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker this week for further talks, but said the focus would be on the future relationship.

A group of cabinet ministers is attempting to secure further changes to Ms May’s plans – in particular in relation to the so-called “backstop” – but Ms May instead made a determined defence of the arrangement setting out what happens with the Irish border after Brexit.

The Independent understands Downing Street is concerned that any attempt to re-open the withdrawal agreement will inadvertently give the EU a chance to tamper with what they believe are positive elements already secured by Ms May.

Ms May was speaking to Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday show when she was asked about the possibility of reshaping parts of the withdrawal agreement ahead of a critical European Council summit to be held in seven days.

Asked if further talks ahead of the summit would include the withdrawal agreement – containing the controversial Irish backstop – or the outline future relationship, Ms May said: “The focus this week will be on the future relationship and when we were in the House of Commons a number of members were saying they want more details on that future relationship – that’s what we are working on this week.

“It’s the future relationship that delivers on the Brexit vote. It’s the future relationship that actually says this is the right deal for the future for our country.”

Theresa May on leadership dispute: 'a change of leadership isn't going to make the negotiations any easier'

The prime minister did repeat the government mantra that “nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed”, but then immediately drew a distinction between the controversial withdrawal agreement and the future relations – again pointing to the latter as the area that will be important for the government in delivering a favourable Brexit.

Ms May’s focus will ring alarm bells with Brexiteers who want key elements of the withdrawal agreement rewritten, including a number of ministers in her cabinet.

It emerged earlier this week that a group of ministers, including Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Chris Grayling, is trying to secure changes to Ms May’s strategy, and even a rewrite of the draft withdrawal agreement – with some said to have held back from resigning in an effort to do so.

But Downing Street sources told The Independent: “There are very real concerns that if you go back and re-open the withdrawal agreement now, it will give Brussels a chance to unpick the things we’ve locked in.

“[Chief EU negotiator Michel] Barnier is also under pressure from member states to get a better deal from his end, on access to British fishing waters among other things.”

Negotiators were deadlocked for almost the entire two years of Brexit talks over what happens to the Irish border if a new trading relationship has not yet been agreed by the UK and EU by the end of the transition period in December 2020.

Theresa May: 'The 48 letter limit has not been reached'

Under these circumstances Brussels’ position was that Northern Ireland at least should remain in the EU’s customs union until a trade deal is set in stone, in order to keep the border with the Republic open, but Ms May wanted a solution where the whole UK remains in a customs arrangement but for a time-limited period.

Brexiteers said they would only accept such a backstop arrangement if the UK can pull out of it unilaterally – something the EU has not agreed to – and it is on this issue that the cabinet ministers will try to make a renewed push in the coming days.

Asked about the arrangement, Ms May confirmed said it was a necessary “insurance policy” to assure the people of Northern Ireland there would be no border with the Republic.

Asked directly whether the UK would be able to leave the backstop at will, Ms May said: “If you took out an insurance policy and if you were coming up to the point where that insurance policy was being used, and suddenly the people providing that insurance policy pulled the plug on it for you and you were left without that insurance policy, without having any say in it, what would you think?

“Actually what we are talking about is a backstop we never intend to use, the EU don’t want to use it either, it’s not the only option on the table, were it to have to be used both sides can review it.”

Regarding a change of leadership, Ms May said it would bring more uncertainty for British business and people’s jobs and would risk delaying negotiations and Brexit itself.

She warned party rivals thinking of replacing her as Conservative leader that it also would not change the parliamentary arithmetic – which currently looks like no way forward would carry majority support.

Pressed over what the government will do in the event a vote on the Brexit deal was lost in the commons, Ms May said: “There’s a process that parliament will go through, were it the case that the deal was lost then the government would come back with their proposals for what the next step was.”

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