Article originally published in The Telegraph on 24/02/2019. It was written by Edward Malnick, Sunday Political Editor.
Delaying Britain’s departure from the EU is an “elephant trap” that could kill off Brexit altogether, senior ministers warned on Saturday night.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, John Penrose, the Northern Ireland minister, said an attempt to remove the option of a no-deal departure on March 29 “could torpedo Brexit completely” by leading to further temporary extensions that “would become permanent”.
Meanwhile, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, warned that it was “essential that we hold our nerve” as Theresa May seeks the concessions that could win Parliament’s support for her deal.
The Telegraph understands that Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and David Lidington, the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy, are privately lobbying Mrs May to publicly pledge that she will not take the UK out of the EU without a deal at the end of next month.
They believe she could avoid such an outcome by seeking a temporary extension of the Article 50 notice period if she cannot make sufficient progress before Wednesday, when MPs are due to vote on a plan that could allow Parliament to take control.
Sources said the pair were acting in a “pincer movement”, along with Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark, who wrote a joint article yesterday claiming that Brexiteers would be at fault for a delay because of their opposition to the current deal. Mr Hammond and Mr Lidington were working “intensively behind the scenes” to persuade Mrs May to commit herself to a delay. They believe the move would prevent pro-EU ministers resigning this week to vote for a plan by MPs, including Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles, to force an extension by seizing control of the Commons agenda.
A voluntary extension by Mrs May was “the only option”, according to a Whitehall source familiar with Mr Hammond and Mr Lidington’s thinking. “It’s better to be in control than to have it forced upon us [by Parliament].”
But Mr Penrose, who supported Remain in 2016, writes: “Taking the option off the table wouldn’t just massively weaken the Prime Minister’s negotiating position. It could torpedo Brexit completely, leaving us in a ‘Hotel California’ Brexit, where we’d checked out but could never leave.”
Mr Penrose claims that Parliament would keep opting to delay Brexit, if it chose to do so now without agreeing on a deal, because the chances of finding a “previously-unnoticed solution … are somewhere between nil and zero”. He added: “By ruling out a World Trade Organisation ‘no-deal’ Brexit completely, we’d have built an enormous elephant trap for ourselves, and there’d be no way to climb out. In the end, the temporary extensions would become permanent.”
Dr Fox added: “Taking no-deal off the table would be to remove the single strongest card that we have in our negotiation with the EU itself and would therefore fundamentally weaken our position … While [I] do not want to see a no-deal scenario, the risk of failing to deliver on Brexit itself is too great to be contemplated.”
Another Cabinet minister described the move by Ms Cooper, Mr Boles and Sir Oliver Letwin as a “parliamentary Pandora’s box”, insisting: “It’s a delay designed to kill the thing off.”
On Sunday, Mrs May will hold talks with EU leaders on the fringes of a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, as she attempts to secure changes to her deal that could win back the support of the DUP and her backbenchers, who fear the so-called “backstop” insurance plan could leave the UK tied to the EU indefinitely.
Ahead of her departure, No 10 released details of her speech to a closed meeting of the National Conservative Convention (NCC) in Oxford on Saturday, when she told supporters the Government’s focus on delivering Brexit must be “absolute”.
Mrs May insisted it is vital the Government maintains its focus as the negotiations reach their final stages.
“Our focus to deliver Brexit must be absolute. We must not, and I will not, frustrate what was the largest democratic exercise in this country’s history,” she said.
“In the very final stages of this process, the worst thing we could do is lose our focus.”
With party loyalties strained to breaking point following the resignations of three Tory MPs to join a group of Labour defectors in the new Independent Group, Mrs May warned against more internal blood-letting.
Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston all complained they had been targeted in their constituencies because of their pro-Remain views, in some cases by former Ukip members who had switched to the Tories.
However Mrs May said: “We are not a party of purges and retribution. We called a referendum and let people express their views – so we should not be seeking to deselect any of our MPs because of their views on Brexit.
“Our party is rightly a broad church – on that and other issues. And we will only save our country from the threat of Jeremy Corbyn if we remain one.”
In a joint statement, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the European Research Group of Eurosceptics, and Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the DUP, told The Telegraph: “We are overwhelmingly united in aiming for a deal with the EU.
“The Prime Minister promised to achieve a significant and legally binding change to the backstop.
“This would ensure that a deal could get through the Commons and would secure our exit from the EU, on time and in line with our commitments in our 2017 manifestos. We cannot back anything that falls short of a legally watertight way out of the backstop.”
On Saturday, the National Conservative Convention of Tory grassroots activists backed a motion warning that “a delay beyond the European elections, taking no-deal off the table or not leaving at all would betray the 2016 People’s Vote and damage democracy and our party for a generation”.
But in a bid to head off further resignations by pro-EU rebels, Mrs May said the Tories were not a party of “purges and retribution” and should resist any attempts to deselect MPs over Brexit.