By Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Editor, in Brussels
Theresa May has confirmed she is ready to consider a delay of “a matter of months” in Britain’s final departure from the EU in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
But the Prime Minister said she does not expect any extension of the so-called “transition” to Brexit to be needed, because she still hopes to conclude a deal on the UK’s future trade and security relationship with the EU by its scheduled end-date of December 2020.
Mrs May faced a backlash from Brexiteers after she indicated at a Brussels summit on Wednesday that she was not ruling out the UK remaining in the single market and customs union and subject to EU rules as late as the end of 2021.
Such a move would delay the final departure almost three years after the official date of Brexit on March 29 2019, and more than five years after the 2016 referendum vote to Leave, potentially costing the UK as much as £10 billion in additional contributions to the EU budgets.
Arriving for the second day of the European Council summit, Mrs May made clear she would accept an extension only as a means to ensure there was no hard border in Ireland if it proved impossible to implement the future partnership by the end of 2020.
“A further idea that has emerged – and it is an idea at this stage – is to create an option to extend the implementation period for a matter of months, and it would only be for a matter of months,” she said.
“But the point is that this is not expected to be used, because we are working to ensure that we have that future relationship in place by the end of December 2020.
“I’m clear that it is possible to do that and that is what we are working for. In those circumstances, there would be no need for any proposal of this sort and I’m clear that I expect the implementation period to end at the end of December 2020.”
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said any extension to the transition period could delay full withdrawal almost until the general election scheduled for May 2022, and “may mean we never leave at all”.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries repeated her call for former Brexit secretary David Davis to replace Mrs May as leader.
“We cannot find the money to fund our front-line police properly, we cannot find the £2 billion for the vulnerable on Universal Credit, but we can mysteriously find billions to bung to the EU for the unnecessary extra year Clegg and Blair asked Barnier for to waylay Brexit,” said Ms Dorries.
Conservative former minister Nick Boles – who is pushing for a “soft Brexit” move to temporary membership of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) – warned Mrs May is losing the confidence of the Tory party.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the EU is demanding “humiliating concessions” because the PM’s Brexit plans fail to fix the problem of the Irish border.
“I’m afraid she is losing the confidence now of colleagues of all shades of opinion,” he said.
“They are close to despair at the state of this negotiation because there is a fear that both the Government and the European Union are trying to run out the clock, that they are trying to leave this so late that they can credibly say there is no alternative but a no-deal Brexit, and most people agree that would be chaos.
“That is not an acceptable way for a leader of a government to behave.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “Extending the transition? More like kicking the can further down the road and delaying, by a bit, driving off the cliff.
“No deal the PM can secure will be as good as staying in the EU.”
Meanwhile, leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg joined Mr Davis and three other former ministers in signing an open letter warning the Prime Minister not to “bind the UK into the purgatory of perpetual membership of the EU’s customs union”.
The group called on Mrs May to “reset” the negotiations and ditch her Chequers Brexit blueprint in favour of a Canada-style free trade agreement.
“We are close to the moment of truth. Brexit offers the prize of a better future, global free trade deals and political independence,” said the letter.
“But if these potential gains are sacrificed because of EU bullying and the Government’s desperation to secure a deal, the British people will not forgive us.”
Mrs May initially suggested an “implementation period” of around two years after Brexit, to give the UK’s authorities and companies time to prepare for new arrangements, but later accepted a 21-month transition ending on the last day of 2020.
It emerged on Wednesday that EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is ready to discuss a further year’s extension to allow time to find a solution to keep the Irish border open.
A senior UK official stressed that the Prime Minister is not herself proposing any extension to the period already agreed, and declined to say how many months she regarded as the maximum she would consider.
“We are talking in a matter of months, we are not talking in a matter of years,” he said.
The official added that Mrs May continues to regard as “unacceptable” the EU backstop proposal for Northern Ireland alone to remain in the European customs area until the implementation of a new trade deal.
Leaders of the 27 remaining EU states ditched proposals for a special Brexit summit in November, after Mr Barnier told them he needed “much more time” to find a way to avoid a hard border.
This week’s summit had been billed as “the moment of truth” when agreement is needed to allow time for ratification in the Westminster and European parliaments.
But Mrs May has not come forward with the new “concrete proposals” demanded by European Council president Donald Tusk, instead telling fellow leaders that “courage, trust and leadership” are needed on both sides to find a solution.