Rees-Mogg signals more flexible stance on Northern Ireland backstop

Hardline Tory Brexiteers have signalled taking a more flexible stance on demands for legal guarantees limiting the Northern Ireland backstop.

Prominent Leave backer Jacob Rees-Mogg indicated he could swing behind the Government’s exit deal if binding legal assurances were added to an appendix to the Withdrawal Agreement, rather than put in the treaty itself.

The EU has consistently rejected demands from arch-Brexiteers to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement over the Northern Ireland issue.

Countdown to leaving the EU
(PA Graphics)

The move comes as the Commons was set to clash again over EU withdrawal during a series of votes on Wednesday.

MPs are debating Theresa May’s Brexit stance in the wake of the Prime Minister accepting for the first time that the UK may not leave the EU on March 29.

Mrs May bowed to pressure from pro-Europe Cabinet members and offered Parliament a chance to vote to delay Brexit if her deal is rejected again next month.

MPs will not get the chance to vote on Mrs May’s withdrawal deal until March, but will be able to table amendments to a neutral Government motion on Brexit on Wednesday.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who heads the strongly pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs, told Sky News that legal assurances on the backstop would need to be binding to win support.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (Stefan Rousseau/PA
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (Stefan Rousseau/PA

He said: “It has to have equal weight to the Withdrawal Agreement.

“So, if it were to be an appendix that would be satisfactory, but then the backstop is itself an appendix, so you can add to the Withdrawal Agreement without re-opening it, it seems to me.

“So, that would work, but it must be of equal legal standing.”

Mr Rees-Mogg insisted most Eurosecptics could not support the deal as it stands as the backstop would mean the UK obeying EU customs rules indefinitely if no wider trade deal has been agreed after a transition period.

The prospect of Parliament being able to delay EU withdrawal next month has been described as an “option on sanity” by the CBI.

The business organisation’s director general Carolyn Fairbairn told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is a small step forward to have a mechanism for delay.

“It feels like an option on sanity, if you like.

Carolyn Fairbairn
CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn (John Stilwell/PA)

“Because, here we are 30 days out from March 29, business is not ready, Government is not ready.

“It would be a wrecking ball on our economy. So, that is a small step forward.”

However, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the BBC: “No-deal is still on the table. It will be for Parliament to decide.”

Ahead of MPs debating the Government’s negotiating strategy, the PM issued a plea to back a Brexit deal, telling Parliament to “do its duty”.

Mrs May said she had found a “real determination” in Brussels to find a way through the deadlock to allow the UK to leave with a deal, and claimed engagement with the European Union had “already begun to bear fruit”.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Mrs May said Parliament’s “absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on March 29” – and reiterated her opposition to delaying Britain’s departure.

She said: “By committing Labour to holding a second referendum, despite promising to implement Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn has shown once again that he cannot be trusted to keep his promises. His cynical political games would take us back to square one.

“Instead, Parliament should do its duty so that our country can move forward.”

Mrs May was warned by a ministerial aide that she faces an “enormous defeat” in the Commons on Wednesday unless she gives in to demands to seek a treaty on citizens’ rights after Brexit.

More than 60 Conservatives are understood to have signed an amendment tabled by Alberto Costa (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament)
More than 60 Conservatives are understood to have signed an amendment tabled by Alberto Costa (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament)

More than 60 Conservatives are understood to have signed an amendment tabled by Alberto Costa calling for a separate agreement with the European Union to protect the rights of expats even if there is a no-deal Brexit.

Labour is also supporting the amendment and Mr Costa said it would be a “farce” if the Government did not back down.

He told the Press Association his amendment, which already has support from 130 MPs ranging from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to Tory arch-Eurosceptic Mr Rees-Mogg, would give the Prime Minister a mandate to push for a change with her fellow EU leaders.

He said his own job as a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Scottish Secretary David Mundell was on the line as a result of his actions.

Labour former minister Yvette Cooper will table an amendment seeking to pin the Prime Minister down to her commitment to give MPs a chance to vote to delay Brexit if her deal falls again.

It came after a Government paper revealed that almost a third of the Government’s most critical no-deal Brexit preparation projects are not on track for completion in time for the scheduled date of EU withdrawal on March 29.