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May offers talks with Corbyn to deliver short delay to Brexit

The Prime Minister made a statement in Downing Street after a Cabinet crisis meeting lasting more than seven hours.

Prime Minister Theresa May gives a press conference inside Downing Street (Jack Taylor/PA)
Prime Minister Theresa May gives a press conference inside Downing Street (Jack Taylor/PA)

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she aims to ask for a further extension to the Brexit process to allow the UK to leave the European Union “in a timely and orderly way”.

Mrs May offered to hold talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to agree a plan acceptable to both, which can be put to the House of Commons ahead of the April 10 summit of the European Council.

The Labour leader said he would be “very happy” to meet the Prime Minister in a bid to offer “certainty and security” to the British people.

Speaking in 10 Downing Street after a marathon session of Cabinet lasting
over seven hours, Mrs May said that any further delay to Brexit should be “as short as possible”.

She said a bill to pave the way for departure would have to be in place by May 22 to ensure the UK did not have to take part in European Parliament elections.

This is a decisive moment in the story of these islands and it will require national unity to deliver the national interest Theresa May

Any new proposal would have to accept the Withdrawal Agreement – including its controversial backstop arrangement – and focus on amendments to the Political Declaration on the future EU/UK relationship, she said.

Setting out her plan for talks with Mr Corbyn, Mrs May said: “The ideal outcome of this process would be to agree an approach on a future relationship that delivers on the result of the referendum, that both the leader of the Opposition and I could put to the House for approval and which I could then take to next week’s European Council.

“However, if we cannot agree on the single unified approach, then we would instead agree a number of options for the future relationship that we could put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue.

“Crucially, the Government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House. But to make this process work, the opposition would need to agree to this too.”

Standing at a lectern with the Government crest, before two Union flags, the Prime Minister added: “This is a decisive moment in the story of these islands and it will require national unity to deliver the national interest.”

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Ministers leaving Downing Street after their marathon Cabinet meeting. (Victoria Jones/PA)

Mr Corbyn said: We will meet the Prime Minister.

“We recognise that she has made a move, I recognise my responsibility to represent the people that supported Labour in the last election and the people who didn’t support Labour but nevertheless want certainty and security for their own future and that’s the basis on which we will meet her and we will have those discussions.”

Ministers began their Cabinet meeting at 9.30am, initially sitting in “political” session in the absence of civil servants. The meeting finally wound up shortly before 5pm, but ministers were held inside without access to their mobile phones while Mrs May prepared her statement.

In an instant response, European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted: “Even if, after today, we don’t know what the end result will be, let us be patient. #Brexit.”

Mrs May’s statement came after warnings from EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier that a no-deal departure on the deadline of April 12 was becoming “day after day more likely”.

Mr Barnier warned that exit without a deal would not put an end to wrangles over the Irish border or the UK’s financial liabilities, telling MEPs they would restart as soon as the UK approached Brussels for a trade agreement.

And French President Emmanuel Macron warned that an extension to the Article 50 negotiation process cannot be taken for granted, and that the UK would have to present a “credible alternative plan backed by a majority” at next week’s summit in order to secure it.

Speaking alongside Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar before talks in Paris, Mr Macron said: “Should the United Kingdom be unable – three years after the referendum – to propose a solution backed by a majority, they will de facto have chosen for themselves to leave without a deal. We cannot avoid failure for them.”

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French President Emmanuel Macron met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar for talks in Paris (AP photo/Christophe Ena/PA Images)

The EU could not become “the hostage to the solution to a political crisis in the UK”, said the French president.

Mrs May said she believed that Britain “could make a success of no-deal in the long term”, but added: “Leaving with a deal is the best solution.”

A cross-party group of senior MPs has launched a bid to prevent a no-deal departure by tabling a bill requiring the Prime Minister to extend the negotiation process beyond April 12.

Following the failure of MPs to unite behind an alternative to Mrs May’s plan on Monday, the group, including Conservative grandee Sir Oliver Letwin and Labour’s Yvette Cooper, aims to pass the bill through the Commons in a single day on Wednesday.

Instead of initiating a third round of indicative votes on Wednesday, when Parliament once more has control over the Commons timetable, Sir Oliver will table a paving motion to allow debate and votes on Ms Cooper’s bill. An amendment to his motion would set aside April 8 for indicative votes.

The single-clause Cooper bill requires the Prime Minister to table her own motion seeking MPs’ approval for an extension to the Article 50 process of Brexit talks to a date of her choosing.

The group behind the bill, which also includes former Tory chair Dame Caroline Spelman, Commons Brexit Committee chair Hilary Benn, former attorney general Dominic Grieve and Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, hopes once it has passed the Commons it could be approved by the House of Lords and granted Royal Assent in time for the emergency EU summit on April 10.

Ms Cooper said: “We are now in a really dangerous situation with a serious and growing risk of no-deal in 10 days’ time. The Prime Minister has a responsibility to prevent that happening.

“She needs to put forward a proposal, including saying how long an extension she thinks we need to sort things out.

“If the Government won’t act urgently, then Parliament has a responsibility to try to ensure that happens even though we are right up against the deadline.”

Sir Oliver added: “This is a last-ditch attempt to prevent our country being exposed to the risks inherent in a no-deal exit.

“We realise this is difficult. But it is definitely worth trying.”

PA

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