May to meet Varadkar in new bid to end Brexit impasse

Theresa May is to hold talks with Irish premier Leo Varadkar as she continues her shuttle-diplomacy to try to break the deadlock in the Brexit negotiations.

After spending Thursday in talks in Brussels, the Prime Minister flies to Dublin in an effort to resolve the dispute over the Irish backstop which remains the main stumbling block to an agreement.

Ahead of her meeting with the Taoiseach over dinner, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will hold talks in the Irish capital with his Irish counterpart, Seamus Woulfe.

Mr Cox has been leading work within Whitehall on providing either a time limit on the backstop or giving the UK an exit mechanism from it.

Geoffrey Cox
Geoffrey Cox

Both proposals have received a dusty response from Dublin, which insists the backstop cannot be time limited if it is to provide an effective “insurance policy” against the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Mrs May, however, has warned she needs legally-binding assurances the UK will not be tied to EU rules indefinitely through the backstop if she is to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons.

Ahead of their talks, Mr Varadkar will travel to Belfast for talks on Friday with the main Northern Ireland parties.

Meanwhile Downing Street has said ministers are looking “with interest” at a letter from Jeremy Corbyn setting out the terms on which Labour would support a deal in Parliament.

The move provoked a furious outcry from Labour Remainers – who fear the plan effectively kills off their hopes of the party backing a second referendum – with warnings from some MPs they could quit the party altogether.

Number 10 sources acknowledged there were still “very considerable points of difference” with Labour over the blueprint – which includes a customs union with the EU, something the Prime Minister has repeatedly ruled out.

Sir Mark Sedwill
Sir Mark Sedwill

However, they may hope the threat Parliament could swing behind a “softer” Norway-style Brexit if there is no agreement on Mrs May’s deal will convince some Tory Brexiteer rebels to fall into line behind her plan.

It comes as the Financial Times reported that a secret group at the heart of Whitehall has been working on emergency plans to kick-start the economy in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The “Project After” group, is said to have been put together by the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, Sir Mark Sedwill, with senior figures from the Treasury, Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for International Trade.

The options said to have been considered by the group – which has been working since the summer and is in close contact with the Bank of England – range from cutting taxes and boosting investment to slashing tariffs.

“It’s basically a Doomsday list of economic levers we could pull if the economy is about to tank,” one Whitehall source is quoted as saying.

Meeting PM @theresa_may on how to overcome impasse on #brexit. Still no breakthrough in sight. Talks will continue.

— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) February 7, 2019

In her meetings in Brussels on Thursday, Mrs May won a commitment from European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker that their teams will carry on talking in an effort to find an agreed solution that can command support in the Commons.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will hold talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday and Mrs May and Mr Juncker have agreed to meet again before the end of the month to take stock of the situation.

The EU side remains adamant it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement while European Council president Donald Tusk said there was “no breakthrough in sight”.

However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more encouraging, suggesting that a deal was possible without re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement.

“Of course its also our duty to get such an agreement — that requires Britain to tell as clearly as possible what they want,” she said during a visit to Slovakia on Thursday.

“I think we can find solutions without re-opening the withdrawal agreement. That is not on the agenda for us.”