The Prime Minister is pursuing two safeguards designed to ensure the controversial Irish ‘backstop’ could not last for more than 12 months.
The drive is the focus of efforts to turn around a massive Tory rebellion ahead of a crunch vote this month on the PM’s Brexit deal.
But Government sources last night acknowledged the initiative would require more EU concessions than Brussels has so far been willing to grant.
Theresa May is set to offer MPs a ‘double lock’ on her Brexit deal in a last-ditch bid to reassure them the UK could not be trapped in a customs union indefinitely
And leading Eurosceptics said there were ‘no signs’ that resolve was wavering among more than 100 MPs who have vowed to join forces with Labour to defeat Mrs May’s deal.
Last night it emerged that the PM is to take personal charge of no-deal planning, as the March 29 deadline for Britain’s exit from the EU approaches. Until now the cabinet committee charged with ensuring the UK is ready for Brexit has been chaired by Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington.
But Downing Street sources said that from Monday a new committee known as EUXT (Preparedness) would focus on ensuring the UK is ready to leave on March 29, regardless of whether a deal has been approved or not. Sources last night insisted securing a deal remains Mrs May’s primary focus.
To achieve this she is now pursuing a twin-track approach – described by one ally as a ‘double lock’ – designed to reassure MPs the Irish backstop cannot last indefinitely.
Until now the cabinet committee charged with ensuring the UK is ready for Brexit has been chaired by Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington
The backstop, which has been demanded by Brussels and Dublin, is designed to prevent the emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland if trade talks falter. But critics believe it could leave the UK trapped indefinitely in a form of customs union – which prevents us negotiating trade deals with non-EU countries.
No10 officials are now working on a possible Commons amendment to the Brexit vote which would give Parliament the right to serve notice to the EU of an intention to quit the backstop after 12 months – if Europe fails to agree a trade deal with the UK that would resolve the Irish border issue.
The amendment would rely on provisions in the Vienna Convention, which governs countries’ rights to withdraw unilaterally from international treaties. At the same time, Mrs May is seeking a written guarantee from Brussels that the EU will have reached a trade deal with the UK no later than 12 months after the end of the Brexit transition period.
This would leave the backstop in place in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. But officials believe that a guarantee written into the political declaration on future relations would have ‘legal force’.
Leading Eurosceptic Steve Baker last night dismissed the idea that a Commons amendment could provide the reassurance needed, saying: ‘This is a tedious and desperate attempt to rescue an unsalvageable deal’. And Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman for Mrs May’s Democratic Unionist Party partners, said there was ‘no way’ the DUP would support the deal without substantial changes to the backstop.
A Whitehall source said: ‘We need both elements. An amendment is a possibility but we need that to go hand-in-hand with something from Brussels. At the moment we don’t have that.’
Mrs May held a ‘friendly’ phone conversation with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday and is ready to fly to Brussels for talks next week if there is any sign of a breakthrough.
She will also launch a charm offensive with mutinous Tory MPs. Just weeks after 117 colleagues opposed her in a confidence vote, she has invited all Tory MPs and their partners to drinks at No10.
The crucial Commons vote on her deal is scheduled to take place on or around January 15. One senior Brexiteer last night said there was no sign of MPs backing down, adding: ‘If there were people who had changed their minds No10 would be parading them.’
Now we’re practising traffic jams
By Larisa Brown Defence and Security Editor
Britain will next week begin testing how the road network would cope with a no-deal Brexit – by effectively staging a practice traffic jam.
Around 150 HGV lorries will converge on a route between Manston Airport and Dover, one of the key points of entry to the UK.
The plan, known as Operation Brock, will take place on Monday, with drivers already contracted by the Department for Transport.
There are fears of chaos on the M20 if the UK leaves the EU without a deal at the end of March and extra border checks are brought in at the Port of Dover and in Europe.
The entire southbound carriageway of a 13-mile stretch of the M20 in Kent will be sectioned off during the operation.
It would be used to hold 2,000 lorries in the event of severe cross-Channel congestion. Two affected Tory-run councils have previously warned that the ‘temporary solution’ would in fact last many years.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: ‘We do not want or expect a no-deal scenario and continue to work hard to deliver a deal with the EU. However, it is the duty of a responsible government to continue to prepare for all eventualities.’