PM signals opposition to Article 50 extension during Merkel talks

Theresa May has insisted to EU leaders that she is against extending Article 50 to allow more time for talks on a withdrawal deal.

Despite facing pressure from pro-Europe Tories on the issue, the Prime Minister told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she still believes an agreement can be sorted out by the scheduled exit date of March 29.

The issue of extending Article 50, which would keep the UK in the EU beyond the planned withdrawal date, came up in a meeting between the two leaders on the fringes of the EU-League of Arab States summit they are both attending in Egypt.

A senior UK Government official said Article 50 was mentioned “briefly” in the 45-minute talks and the PM remained with the view that such a move would only “delay decisions”.

The official added: “They did discuss Brexit, they discussed UK Parliament, things that have been happening in UK Parliament, things that are happening this week.”

Mrs May is also holding talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Irish premier Leo Varadkar on Monday.

The meetings come after the PM admitted she will not get a Brexit deal in time for MPs to hold a “Meaningful Vote” this week.

Mrs May said she will put her deal to Parliament by March 12 at the latest – just 17 days before Britain is due to leave the EU.

The PM now faces the prospect of another potentially damaging Commons revolt on Wednesday when MPs are expected to mount a fresh attempt to block a no-deal break and extend Article 50.

Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood suggested there was a possibility of Mrs May herself announcing an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process beyond March 29.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The Prime Minister is listening and is recognising the fact that we have tried very, very hard in order to secure a deal.”

Asked if she could announce an Article 50 extension after her return from talks with other EU leaders in Egypt, he said: “You need to wait and hear what she has to say when she gets back.

“That, I don’t know. I’m encouraging that to happen because it’s not in anybody’s interest to see no deal.”

Mr Ellwood called on Eurosceptic MPs in the European Research Group (ERG) to “fall in line” to help Mrs May secure a deal.

Mrs May’s acknowledgement that she cannot get a deal to put to MPs this week means there will now be a further series of votes in the Commons on an amendable Government motion on Wednesday.

A cross-party group of MPs seeking to block a no-deal break immediately confirmed they would be tabling an amendment giving the House the power to demand a delay to Brexit if an agreement is not in place by March 13.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

In recent days three pro-EU Cabinet ministers – Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark – signalled they could be prepared to vote for it if there was no breakthrough in the negotiations.

There was speculation that up to 100 Tory MPs – including as many as 20 ministers – could be prepared to join them as patience among MPs opposed to no deal is stretched to breaking point.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who drew up the amendment with Conservative former minister Sir Oliver Letwin, said it would now become the “real meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The Government doesn’t feel to me to be behaving like a responsible government at all at the moment.

“The idea that we could be only a few weeks from Brexit and we still don’t know what kind of Brexit we are going to have and we’re not even going to have a vote on it until two weeks before that final deadline.

“I don’t see how businesses can plan, I don’t see how public services can plan and I think it’s just deeply damaging.”

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