I will not negotiate Brexit with PM over dinner, says Leo Varadkar

Irish premier Leo Varadkar has said he will not be negotiating Brexit when he meets Theresa May for dinner in Dublin on Friday evening.

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

She will be joined for the private dinner at official state guesthouse Farmleigh House by the UK’s Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins and her chief of staff Gavin Barwell.

Mr Varadkar said while the meal presented an opportunity to “share perspectives” on Brexit, actual negotiations “can only be between the European Union and the United Kingdom”.

Speaking during a visit to Belfast for talks with Northern Irish parties, the Taoiseach said: “I think everybody wants to avoid no-deal, everybody wants to avoid a hard border and everybody wants to continue to have a very close political and economic relationship between Britain and Ireland no matter want happens.

Brexit
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media ahead of talks with Northern Ireland’s five main political parties at the Irish Government residence in Belfast. (Liam McBurney/PA)

“There is much more that unites us than divides us and time is running short, and we need to get to an agreement really as soon as possible, and I’ll be working very hard and redoubling my efforts, along with government, to do that.”

He added: “I believe ultimately we are going to have to get this deal over the line and I am determined to do that.”

Downing Street said Mrs May would be “emphasising what we are looking for, seeking the legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that Parliament said it needs to approve the deal”.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox held talks in Dublin 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
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox met his Irish counterpart (Jonathan Brady/PA)

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.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will hold talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday.

Meanwhile, Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker have agreed to meet again before the end of the month to take stock of the situation.

I am looking forward to meeting @SteveBarclay in Brussels on Mon evening. I will listen to how the UK sees the way through. The EU will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. But I will reaffirm our openness to rework the Political Declaration in full respect of #EUCO guidelines.

— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) February 8, 2019

Mr Barnier said he was “looking forward” to the meeting in Brussels but restated the EU’s position that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened.

“I will listen to how the UK sees the way through,” the EU negotiator said.

“The EU will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. But I will reaffirm our openness to rework the Political Declaration in full respect of European Council guidelines.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

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.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Mrs May had to accept his party’s proposals were the only way of getting a Brexit deal through Parliament.

“We believe a deal like this, put before Parliament again, could secure a majority and what you’re seeing here is, yes, Parliament asserting control, and the Prime Minister has to accept that the only way she’ll get something through Parliament is a compromise like this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Mr McDonnell said the Prime Minister would have a “secure” parliamentary majority if she backed the plans, which he described as a “traditional British compromise”, but said a second referendum was still on the table if an agreement could not be reached.

Sir Mark Sedwill
Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill is said to have been looking at emergency economic measures (PA)

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.

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 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.