Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator was overheard telling colleagues in a hotel bar either MPs will back May’s deal – or they can expect ‘extended talks’ with the European Union.
Olly Robbins loudly told his companions on Monday evening Parliament could see a revised deal in March but that ‘in the end they (EU) will probably just give us an extension’ if it is not backed.
Mr Robbins was overheard by ITV’s Angus Walker following the meeting at the UK Ambassador’s Residence between Michel Barnier and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
‘The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension,’ he was overheard saying by Mr Walker.
‘In the end they will probably just give us an extension.’
Chief negotiator Olly Robbins was overheard talking in a bar about Mrs May and Brexit
Mr Barclay was said to have held ‘constructive’ talks last night with the EU’s Mr Barnier in Brussels.
After dining on pan-fried North Sea sole with Scottish scallops, the pair agreed to further meetings in the coming days, while their teams will continue to work to find a way forward.
However, Mr Barnier said: ‘It’s clear from our side that we are not going to reopen the withdrawal agreement but we will continue our discussion in the coming days.’
Mr Robbins, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator had been at the talks and subsequent events, before being at the same hotel as journalist Mr Walker where others in the bar ‘did not have to listen hard to hear him’.
Angus Walker wrote for ITV: ‘Robbins said that, in his view, he expects the choice for MPs to be either backing May’s deal or extending talks with the EU.
‘He expects MPs in March to be presented with backing a reworked Brexit deal or a potentially significant delay to Brexit, he told colleagues last night.
‘This is significant. The prime minister has consistently said that we are leaving the EU on March 29th and that she will not engage with discussion about delaying our departure.
‘We now know her chief negotiator – who works directly for her – appears to be expecting a delay. A delay which she has always said was an option that was not on the table.
‘Robbins added that he thought the fear of a long extension to Article 50 might focus MPs’ minds.’
Theresa May has always denied she wants to remain in a Customs Union with the EU.
Olly Robbins has the inside track on Britain’s Brexit plans
But comments made by Mr Robbins suggest that may have been the original plan.
Mr Walker wrote: ‘What is also striking is how Robbins confirmed that the original plan was for the backstop, which would keep the UK in the customs union, was designed not as a ‘safety net’ for the island of Ireland but as ‘a bridge’ to the long-term trading relationship – which is something the prime minister has always denied.’
He also overheard Mr Robbins saying: ‘The big clash all along is the ‘safety net. We agreed a bridge but it came out as a ‘safety net’.’
It was also suggested Mr Robbins and the Prime Minister will seek to have the Withdrawal Agreement amended so that the Good Friday Agreement would be less of an obstacle’ on the backstop
To do that they will attempt to have the European Commission ‘agree that the word ‘necessary’ in the Northern Ireland protocol is defined as ‘necessary subject to the future trade deal’.’
Mrs May is running short on time.
More than a dozen ministers could join the revolt at the showdown on February 27 as pro-EU MPs told MailOnline the votes will finally be the crunch moment for no deal.
Earlier, the PM urged MPs to ‘hold their nerve’ as she appealed for ‘a little more time’ to get concessions on the Irish border backstop in bitter Commons clashes.
However, EU chief negotiator Mr Barnier emerged from the dinner with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay in Brussels last night to insist the Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated.
The Tory leader tried to quell a mounting rebellion by Remainers by promising them another chance to influence the Brexit process by the end of the month if her renegotiation is not complete.
But Mrs May fuelled anger that she is playing for time to reach March 29 by refusing to give a firm date by which a final vote on her deal will be held.
She reportedly told the cabinet it is ‘clear’ more time is needed.
Mrs May said: ‘The talks are at a crucial stage. We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House has required and deliver Brexit on time.
‘By getting the changes we need to the backstop; by protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and environmental protections; and by enhancing the role of Parliament in the next phase of negotiations I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support.’
In a rebuke to Jeremy Corbyn, Mrs May dismissed his call for a permanent customs union with the EU, saying the idea was ‘less desirable’ than her existing deal and the House had already voted against it in principle.
Earlier this week she stopped short of ruling out a customs union in a letter to Mr Corbyn which caused angry ripples among the more hardlines Conservatives.
With 45 days to go, former attorney general Dominic Grieve warned that time was running perilously short for ratification of any deal under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.
The Act, passed by the coalition government in 2010, requires 21 sitting days before the ratification of any international treaty.
But Mrs May made clear the government would get rid of the requirement if necessary.
Theresa May is feeling the heat with just weeks left before she must give MPs another chance to vote on her deal but Brussels is not budging
‘In most circumstances, that period may be important in order for this House to have an opportunity to study that agreement,’ she said.
‘But of course, in this instance MPs will already have debated and approved the agreement as part of the meaningful vote.
‘So while we will follow normal procedure if we can, where there is insufficient time remaining following a successful meaningful vote, we will make provision in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – with Parliament’s consent – to ensure that we are able to ratify on time to guarantee our exit in an orderly way.’
A spokesman later explained that the process would be accelerated by a clause in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill itself, which would disapply the terms of the 2010 Act in this case.
Mrs May sidestepped demands from several MPs to spell out whether she would ask the EU for an extension to the two-year Brexit negotiation process or allow the UK to crash out without a deal if she hit the March 29 deadline with no agreement.
Earlier, Mrs May gave the Cabinet details of what had happened on her visit to Brussels last week, spelling out that she had suggested replacing the backstop with ‘alternative arrangements’, or inserting a time-limit or a ‘unilateral exit mechanism’.
What will happen next in the unfolding Brexit drama?
MPs will hold another round of votes on Brexit.
They are not due to pass judgement on Theresa May’s deal – instead debating a ‘neutral’ motion simply saying that they have considered the issue.
However, a range of amendments are set to be tabled. They could include proposals to delay the Brexit date beyond March 29.
Labour is pushing a change that would force another ‘meaningful vote’ on the PM’s Brexit deal by February 26, regardless of whether she has finished renegotiating the package with the EU.
Mrs May could have an opportunity to seal a new package with fellow EU leaders at a joint summit with the Arab League in Sharm el-Sheikh.
However, it is not clear how many will attend the gathering – or whether she will have completed the deal by then.
Downing Street is trying to head off a potential Tory Remainer mutiny by promising MPs will get another set of votes by this date regardless of whether there is a final deal.
The PM will attend a scheduled EU summit in Brussels that would effectively be the last opportunity to get agreement.
Some MPs fear that Mrs May is trying to delay for as long as possible, and might even try to hold a make-or-break vote in the Commons on March 26. That would be just 72 hours before Brexit, giving them a very stark deal-or-no-deal choice.
11pm, March 29
The UK is due to leave the EU with or without a deal, unless the Article 50 process is extended with approval from the bloc’s leaders, or revoked to cancel Brexit altogether.