A cross-party group of MPs is to launch a fresh attempt to prevent a no-deal Brexit if Theresa May cannot reach an agreement with Brussels by mid-March.
The group, including Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory former minister Oliver Letwin, have said they are ready to table an amendment enabling Parliament to force ministers to seek a delay if there is no deal in place.
The move comes as it was reported the British Prime Minister’s chief EU adviser Olly Robbins has suggested MPs could be faced with a choice between accepting her deal or seeing Britain’s withdrawal put on hold for an extended period.
ITV news reported that Mr Robbins was overheard in a Brussels hotel bar on Monday telling colleagues the EU would probably give the Government an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process.
He was said to have indicated that if MPs did not vote for a deal, then the delay would be “a long one”.
“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension. In the end they will probably just give us an extension,” he was quoted as saying.
“Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March… Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one…”
The comments by Mr Robbins – a key figure in the negotiations with the EU – will fuel the suspicion among MPs that Mrs May is trying to “run down the clock” to Brexit day on March 29 in an attempt to force them to back her agreement.
Publicly the Prime Minister has always insisted the UK will leave on time – although a number of Cabinet ministers have raised the possibility of an extension.
A Government spokesman said: “We would not comment on alleged remarks from a private conversation which is said to have been overheard in a hotel bar.”
Meanwhile, the group led by Ms Cooper and Mr Letwin said they were preparing plans to enable Parliament to prevent the country falling into a no-deal Brexit “by accident”.
The move follows the announcement by Mrs May on Tuesday that she will make a further Commons statement on February 26 and table an amendable motion to be debated and voted on by MPs the following day, if she has not got a deal at that point.
The group say they would then put down an amendment creating parliamentary time for a bill requiring the Prime Minister and Parliament to decide by mid-March whether the UK is leaving with a deal, without a deal or whether it will seek an extension to Article 50.
Ms Cooper said: “This bill creates a Parliamentary safeguard to prevent us drifting into no-deal by accident, and to prevent those crucial decisions being left until the final fortnight.”
A similar amendment by Ms Cooper and the Tory former minister Nick Boles was defeated in the Commons last month.
However supporters of the plan believe that as the calendar counts down towards March 29, it will focus the minds of MPs on all sides who believe no-deal would be a disaster for the UK economy.
Mr Letwin added: “Any MP who genuinely wants to prevent an under-prepared no-deal Brexit will need to vote for this bill at the end of February.
“It is the only way of giving the House of Commons the time to produce a consensus about a positive way forward if the PM cannot get her deal through by mid-March.”
Other MPs supporting the move include the senior Labour MP Hilary Benn, Tory former attorney general Dominic Grieve and the Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb.
It is also backed by Tory MP Dame Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey who last month tabled a non-binding amendment opposing a no-Brexit which did win Commons support.
- Press Association