Theresa May disowned hardline Tory Brexiteers in meeting with EU leaders at summit

Tory strife reaches boiling point as EU officials already preparing for yet another extension past October

Jon Stone
Thursday 11 April 2019 11:27 BST
Theresa May blames MPs for Brexit delay following EU summit

Theresa May disowned hardline Tory Eurosceptics at a closed meeting of EU leaders in Brussels in her bid to win a further delay to Brexit.

The prime minister stressed to Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and others that MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg – who have suggested the UK should cause chaos at EU institutions if it stayed in the bloc – had no influence.

“She made clear that that the United Kingdom was a serious country and that we should not be distracted by some non-members of the government who were trying to give the opposite impression,” a senior EU official who was in the meeting said.

The revelation comes amid fast-rising tension in the Conservative Party after the prime minister secured a Brexit delay until the autumn and indicated she could stay on longer as prime minister.

According to one account of the meeting, the prime minister is said to have indicated to EU leaders that a longer extension would be acceptable to her, as long as it had a break clause. She had publicly been endorsing a 30 June extension after agreeing to that date with her cabinet.

Last week Mr Rees-Mogg, a leading figure in the Brexiteer European Research Group of Tory MPs, had said that “if a long extension leaves us stuck in the EU we should be as difficult as possible”.

Just hours after Wednesday’s meeting, EU officials had already started preparing for the possibility of yet another extension of Article 50 past October.

The Independent understands that the withdrawal agreement needs to be redrafted to remove three references to the 29 March 2019 exit date, which has now passed. But instead of replacing the old date with the new 31 October one, the treaty will simply say it comes into force a day after it is ratified – to provide flexibility for further extensions.

One EU source said that no decision had been taken about what would happen in October, and that “some [member states] are more keen to bring this process to an end than others”. They added: “The inclination to push the United Kingdom into no deal is not a very popular one in the European Council.”

In a six-hour meeting that ran into the early hours of Thursday, EU leaders hashed out a position on a Brexit extension. The vast majority of member states are said to have been open to an even longer extension until 2020, but France – which wanted a shorter deadline to put pressure on the UK – dug its heels in.

Rees-Mogg has called on the UK to be difficult if Brexit is delayed for a long time
Rees-Mogg has called on the UK to be difficult if Brexit is delayed for a long time (EPA)

Ultimately a compromise was reached, with an extension until 31 October and a review of the situation in June to placate the French president. Officials cautioned that the June date would not be particularly significant. They added that 31 October was chosen for “purely technical” reasons and not because it was Halloween.

EU officials have confirmed that the extension will eat into the Brexit transition period: its termination date of 2021 with an option to extend by two years will not be changed.

The inclination to push the United Kingdom into no deal is not a very popular one in the European Council.

Senior EU official

Reports that the UK will be stripped of its EU commissioner during the Article 50 extension have also proven to be exaggerated. The UK will be asked to nominate a commissioner and the nominee will go through hearings as normal. Only once the UK has left will it lose its commissioner, leaving it without representation during the transition period.

The prime minister returns to Westminster with her party on the brink of all-out civil war. On Wednesday in Westminster former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith called on Theresa May to quit if she came back from Brussels with a long extension, which she has now obtained. Some of the PM’s allies rallied around her, however. Justice secretary David Gauke warned that it may not be in the country’s interests to replace Ms May immediately.

Tory sources close to Ms May have confirmed that she only intends to quit once the withdrawal agreement has been passed, and has no specific departure date.

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