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Brexit could be delayed, warns Jeremy Hunt

The Foreign Secretary said it was ‘difficult to know’ if negotiations with Brussels would run until late March.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (Tolga Akmen/PA)
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (Tolga Akmen/PA)

Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union could be delayed to enable the Government to pass crucial legislation if a Brexit deal is not agreed until late March, the Foreign Secretary has warned.

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Jeremy Hunt said it was “difficult to know” if negotiations with Brussels would run until the 11th hour, but confirmed that “extra time” may be needed to pass laws.

But Downing Street insisted Theresa May remained “determined” to ensure that all the necessary arrangements would be in place for the UK to leave on March 29.

“The Prime Minister’s position on this is unchanged. We will be leaving on March 29,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

Mr Hunt’s suggestion was echoed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who said it was “possible” Article 50 would need to be extended in order to secure a deal.

It came as the Institute for Government (IFG) said the UK is unprepared for a no-deal exit as there would be “extremely damaging” disruption.

The think tank predicted that in eight out of 11 broad policy areas, including health and borders, the Government would be unable to avoid “major negative impacts”.

IFG director Bronwen Maddox told the BBC the UK is “not ready for no deal”, adding: “The disruption from no deal – simply from the lack of preparation – would be extremely damaging. It cannot be dismissed as a mere blip.”

Mr Hunt told Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it is true that if we ended up approving a deal in the days before 29 March then we might need some extra time to pass critical legislation, but if we are able to make progress sooner then that might not be necessary.

“We can’t know at this stage exactly which of those scenarios would happen.”

He said it was still possible to reach a deal as a consensus in Parliament had emerged, and added that the Government is not ruling out any potential solutions, including a technological solution to solve the Irish border question.

Meanwhile Mr Corbyn, speaking in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, told reporters: “It is possible that there will have to be an extension in order to get an agreement because we cannot leave the EU on March 29 without an agreement.

“Crashing out would mean problems of transport, problems of medicine supply, problems of supply to the food processing industry that does just in time deliveries – and that simply is not acceptable.

“This Government has had two-and-a-half years to negotiate and has failed to do so.”

The Times reported the Prime Minister is preparing to woo rebel Labour MPs into supporting her deal with an injection of cash into deprived areas which voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, including former mining communities.

Downing Street confirmed that ministers were looking at a programme of “national renewal” following Brexit to tackle inequality and rebuild communities.

“No community should feel that they are left behind,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

Asked if the funding was “cash for votes”, the spokesman said: “I absolutely wouldn’t characterise it like that.”

Union officials met with Government officials in the Cabinet Office to discuss Mrs May’s promise of protections for workers’ rights as part of her Brexit Plan B.

Speaking after the meeting, a TUC spokesman said Mrs May’s deal came “nowhere close” to offering the safeguards needed by working people.

“Our movement has been clear that working people need a binding guarantee for their rights, now and into the future,” said the spokesman. “We won’t support a Brexit deal which fails this test, and the Government has come nowhere close to meeting it.

“The strongest possible protection for workers’ rights would come from sticking by single market and customs union rules.”

Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said on Thursday that the February recess for MPs may be scrapped.

The Commons had been expected to rise at the end of business on February 14 and return on February 25.

Mrs May is due to report back to Parliament on her negotiations with the EU on February 13, with a further series of votes by MPs expected the following day.

Reports have suggested she could face a wave of resignations by pro-Remain ministers if she does not at that point finally rule out a no-deal Brexit.

But Mrs May’s intention to return to Brussels to reopen negotiations on the controversial Northern Ireland backstop has been met with a firm rebuff from European leaders.

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