Whirlwind diplomacy as May seeks Brexit support amid warnings of no-deal damage

The European Union has been urged to demonstrate “trust and vision” in talks with the UK at the start of a week of intense efforts to find a Brexit breakthrough.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the process was at a “critical period” but insisted there was “a way through” which could secure the support of MPs at Westminster.

His comments came as Theresa May’s effective deputy prime minister warned that a no-deal outcome would cause serious economic damage and could even put the future of the United Kingdom at risk.

Brexit: what could happen
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Mr Hunt was speaking in Brussels at a foreign ministers’ meeting and is expected to have further talks with counterparts this week.

He said: “What we need is trust and vision on both sides because what is at stake here is Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours for the next 25 years.”

Meanwhile Mrs May will meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in the coming days and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will hold talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday.

The pair are expected to discuss the proposals of the Alternative Arrangements Working Group of Tories, who have been seeking a compromise solution to avoid the need for the controversial Irish backstop.

Ahead of his talks with Mr Barclay, Mr Barnier said “time is very short” as the clock ticks down to Brexit day on March 29.

After an intensive weekend @MunSecConf discussing global affairs, security and #brexit, I am now travelling back to Brussels to continue discussions with UK gov this week. Time is very short… pic.twitter.com/2fubHY4Zst

— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) February 17, 2019

Mr Lidington stressed the Government’s determination to secure a deal and issued a stark warning about what was at stake.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that a no-deal Brexit was “something that no member of the Cabinet wants to see, because… it would cause some serious damage to our economy and, I think, put strain on the union of the United Kingdom”.

In a speech on Tuesday, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will set out what changes would be required to eliminate the legal risk of being indefinitely trapped in the insurance policy to avoid a hard border.

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Mr Lidington said the Attorney General on Tuesday would explain “how the legal tests that he has set about ensuring the so-called backstop cannot be used to trap the UK indefinitely could be met and overcome” and he expected MPs to put “great weight” on his advice.

Mrs May had made clear that she wanted to “reopen” the Withdrawal Agreement to secure legal reassurance on the backstop, said Mr Lidington, though he accepted that would be “very difficult”.

It comes after Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright suggested Mrs May might not seek to reopen the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement to make changes to the backstop, prompting anger from Eurosceptic Tories.

Jeremy Wright, talking about the backstop changes, said it wasn't the mechanism that matters but the objective (Jeff Overs/BBC)
Jeremy Wright, talking about the backstop changes, said it was not the mechanism that matters but the objective (Jeff Overs/BBC)

Mr Wright implied the agreement could be amended via a codicil, saying the “objective” mattered more than the “mechanism”.

Tory Brexiteer Sir John Redwood said it was not possible to “gloss” the Withdrawal Agreement.

“It needs significant changes, I’m not saying a little change would be sufficient, it requires a renegotiation,” he told the Press Association.

Sir Bill Cash, Conservative chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, said, if the changes were just “flowery words”, then the deal “won’t wash”.

“The backstop is unacceptable because it means that we remain in the EU indefinitely and also would do immense damage to relations with Northern Ireland … and therefore as far as I’m concerned unless the wording actually has legal force and has substance it isn’t going to work.”

With Labour also deeply split over Brexit, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the party would “look at” a compromise proposal put forward by backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson to back a second Brexit referendum in the next round of Brexit votes on February 27.

Mr Kyle said the plan would see Remain-backing MPs allowing Mrs May’s deal to pass through Parliament in return for a “confirmatory” public vote.