PM to update Commons on Tuesday on progress in Brexit talks

Prime Minister Theresa May is to give a statement to Parliament on Tuesday on the latest developments in Brexit talks, Downing Street announced.

The PM had been expected to deliver her statement on Wednesday ahead of a Commons debate on Thursday, but her official spokesman said the earlier timing would “give Parliament a couple of days to digest the content”.

Labour will use a vote on Thursday to attempt to force Mrs May to bring her Brexit deal back to the Commons for a showdown by February 26 to prevent her “running down the clock” to the UK’s scheduled departure date of March 29.

But the Prime Minister is expected to offer MPs a further chance to vote on non-binding amendments on February 27.

The move is aimed at postponing a rebellion by ministers who are committed to removing the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29.

On Monday, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay was meeting members of the Alternative Arrangements Working Group of Tories drawn from all sides of the party who have been seeking a compromise solution to avoid the need for the controversial “backstop” to keep the Irish border open.

Mr Barclay will later travel to Brussels for talks over dinner with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson indicated he would be willing to accept a time limit on the Brexit backstop as his price for backing the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement.

But Mr Johnson insisted that a separate codicil setting out amendments to the backstop plan would not be “good enough”, indicating that he is holding out for changes to the text of the agreement itself.

“The argument is now about how to get out of the backstop,” Mr Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“And how to make sure that the UK isn’t locked in that prison of the customs union.

“I think that you would need to have a time limit.”

Asked if changes to the backstop proposals could come in a separate codicil to the Withdrawal Agreement, Mr Johnson said: “I don’t think that would be good enough.”

Meanwhile, Mrs May has offered further talks with Labour in an attempt to secure cross-party consensus on Brexit.

A letter addressed to leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn from Prime Minister Theresa May
A letter addressed to leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn from Prime Minister Theresa May

In a letter to Jeremy Corbyn, she questioned his call for a customs union with Brussels, but offered concessions in other areas and said she wanted talks between Labour and Tory teams “as soon as possible”.

Mr Johnson accused Mr Corbyn of trying to “frustrate” Brexit by demanding a customs union, which he said would prevent the UK from striking its own trade deals.

And there were signs of unease in Tory ranks at the idea of Mrs May exploring means of bringing the Labour leader on board in her search for a Brexit deal.

In her letter, Mrs May rejected Labour’s demand for the UK automatically to follow EU rules on workers’ rights and environmental protection.

But she said the Government is prepared to commit to asking Parliament if it wishes to follow suit if standards change.

Former Conservative chairman Grant Shapps warned in a tweet: “(The) coalition worked hard to create a dynamic UK jobs market & we enjoy half the unemployment rate of France by being a more attractive place to hire people. No point winning Labour MPs, by losing Tories!”

Responding to the conditions for a Brexit deal set out by the Labour leader in a letter last week, Mrs May told Mr Corbyn: “It is good to see that we agree that the UK should leave the European Union with a deal and that the urgent task at hand is to find a deal that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, can command support in Parliament and can be negotiated with the EU – not to seek an election or second referendum.”

The PM said she wanted the Tory and Labour teams to consider “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop.

But she insisted her deal already met many of the conditions he had set, without tying the UK in to a customs union arrangement which would prevent Britain from striking its own trade deals.

The existing Political Declaration – the part of the Brexit deal setting out the goals for the future UK-EU relationship – “explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union – no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors and no checks on rules of origin”, said the PM.

We need to break the Brexit deadlock. Will @theresa_may listen to our five demands?

— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) February 10, 2019

Mr Corbyn’s demand is for a customs union that gives the UK a say on future trade deals the EU might strike – something Brussels appears unlikely to accept.

The Prime Minister said: “I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?”

She also questioned whether the call for completely “frictionless” trade would mean reneging on Labour’s commitment to end free movement by requiring single market membership.

Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss refused to rule out resigning if Mrs May backed a customs union.

She told Sky News: “I absolutely do not think that should be our policy.”