Jeremy Hunt admits Brexit may be delayed to avoid no deal
The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has admitted article 50 may have to be extended to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March.
The government had consistently ruled out seeking an extension and on Tuesday whipped its MPs to vote down an amendment to ask for a delay. But, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hunt conceded a delay might be necessary if an agreement with the EU was reached with only days to spare before the March deadline.
Asked if a technical delay would be necessary, Hunt said: “That depends on how long this process takes. It is true that if we ended up approving a deal in the days before the 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.”
Speaking ahead of an informal summit with his EU27 counterparts in Romania, Hunt described the Brexit impasse as “a very challenging situation”.
He claimed changes to the withdrawal agreement could be made if the UK could allay Irish fears concerns about a possible hard border and those of the wider EU about the integrity of the single market. He said: “Provided we can meet these very reasonable concerns from our friends in Ireland about not having a hard border and concerns in the EU about access to the single market – provided we can do that, which I think we can, then I think there is a way through.”
He played down the insistence in Dublin and Brussels that negotiations on the withdrawal agreement would not be reopened.
Hunt said: “These are negotiations. People’s first reaction when you make some new proposal to break a deadlock is to say ‘no, no, no that’s completely impossible’, but in reality the EU said to us: tell us what parliament can unite behind – we’ve done that. Secondly we will now put together some proposal that makes sure we don’t breach these two very important principles for the EU.”
He said Crawford Falconer, the chief trade negotiator at the Department for International Trade, would not be added to the team leading the negotiations with Brussels, despite assurances given to Brexiter MPs.
Hunt said: “To my knowledge there has not been a change in the team.” But he added: “I’m sure we are going to tap into his brilliance. He’s an extraordinary man and a very, very experienced trade negotiator … I would be very surprised if he wasn’t feeding into the process.”
He also admitted that the business secretary, Greg Clark, was wary of technical alternatives to the Irish backstop put forward in the so-called Malthouse compromise.
“We are not looking at one particular solution which is the only way forward,” said Hunt. “There was a consensus in the Conservative parliament party around a technology solution put together by Kit Malthouse. That is one of the things we are looking at. He [Clark] had some scepticism about it.”
Pressed on what alternative arrangements the government would be proposing to the EU, Hunt said: “We have put these proposals together, we have to work them up, we have to go through them in detail with our partners in the EU … It is going to take a few days to do that, but we are not going to spell those out on air.”