Theresa May is meeting members of a working group seeking a compromise on the controversial Brexit backstop, amid reports that their favoured proposal may have been taken off the table.
Members of the Malthouse Compromise group – which brings together MPs from the Leave and Remain wings of the Conservative Party – were expected to meet the PM in her rooms in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening.
Earlier, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay briefed the Cabinet on his talks with Michel Barnier in Brussels on Monday, at which the EU chief negotiator voiced concerns about the viability of the Malthouse plan.
The plan would replace the backstop with a free trade agreement along with technological methods for keeping the Irish border open after Brexit. If this was not acceptable to Brussels, a Plan B would see the UK leave without a deal but with a transition period extended to the end of 2021 to allow time to prepare.
Mrs May’s official spokesman declined to respond to reports that Mrs May told Cabinet that the Malthouse plan would not form part of proposals she will put to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.
Instead, he pointed reporters to a statement issued by the Department for Exiting the EU following Mr Barclay’s meeting with Mr Barnier, confirming that they had discussed the Malthouse Compromise.
The statement said: “While the Commission engaged seriously with these proposals it expressed concerns about their viability to resolve the backstop.
“We agreed to keep exploring the use of alternative arrangements – especially how they might be developed to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland on a permanent footing, avoiding the need for the backstop to ever enter force.”
Brexiteers responded with dismay to reports of the Cabinet discussion.
Former Tory MP Stewart Jackson, chief of staff to David Davis during his time as Brexit secretary, said: “You can always rely on the PM and her tin-eared advisers at 10 Downing Street to look a gift horse in the mouth before melting it down for glue. This work could have been done a year ago!”
Mrs May’s meeting with Mr Juncker comes as she fights to finalise an alternative EU withdrawal plan to present to the House of Commons ahead of the next round of key Brexit votes on February 27.
But Mr Juncker told reporters in the German city of Stuttgart: “There is not enough movement for me to be able to assume that it will be a productive discussion. I don’t know what Mrs May will tell me tomorrow.”
He later said he was not expecting a breakthrough. His deputy chief spokeswoman Mina Andreeva quoted him as saying: “I have great respect for Theresa May, for her courage and her assertiveness. We will have friendly talks tomorrow but I don’t expect a breakthrough.”
Mr Barclay is also due to make a further visit to Brussels later this week as the UK seeks EU approval for changes to the backstop – an insurance arrangement designed to avoid a hard Irish border after Brexit by keeping the UK in a customs union until a wider trade deal is agreed.
Mrs May’s spokesman confirmed that the PM is still committed to reopening the Withdrawal Agreement agreed with the EU last November.
The PM is looking for concessions that will enable her to get her deal through Parliament after it was comprehensively rejected by MPs in last month’s “meaningful vote”.
But the European Commission issued a fresh warning that it is not ready to renegotiate the deal.
At a daily briefing for journalists in Brussels, Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the EU side wanted an “orderly” withdrawal by the UK on March 29 as planned.
But he made clear the EU was not prepared to give ground on Mrs May’s key demands – either to include an exit clause or a time limit on the backstop, or to replace it with an alternative arrangement.
“The EU will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. We cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” he said.
“Further talks will be held this week to see whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council.”
Meanwhile, a Government minister suggested MPs could act to delay Brexit and extend the Article 50 withdrawal process rather than allow the UK to crash out without a deal.
Business Minister Richard Harrington told a manufacturers’ conference in London: “I do not believe there will be a no-deal Brexit. The reason I don’t believe that is because I think the Prime Minister’s deal will go through.
“But if it doesn’t get through, before then Parliament will have taken control, we will have a small extension to Article 50 and Parliament will then decide on alternatives.
“I believe that will become the Plan B.”
Ahead of his meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Juncker said he could not rule out an extension to Article 50 which would keep the UK in the EU beyond European Parliament elections due in the spring.
Mr Juncker told a press conference in Stuttgart: “I can imagine that the UK could decide tomorrow or the day after tomorrow to ask for a postponement of their departure date. And I can’t imagine that any government in Europe would not receive that request positively.
“But we are not there yet.”
Any extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process which took the date of Brexit beyond the end of May would require the UK to take part in the upcoming European Parliament elections, as the citizens of all member states have the right to be represented, he said.