Theresa May will lead a major diplomatic drive to persuade European Union leaders to save her Brexit agreement, as she faces a rebellion from Cabinet ministers who want to stop the U.K. leaving without a deal.
May’s allies believe she has just nine days left to save her strategy before members of Parliament run out of patience and step in to take over the process in a vote scheduled for Feb. 27.
As the clock runs down, May’s dispatching her ministers across Europe in an attempt to persuade the EU to make concessions so that skeptical colleagues in her Conservative Party can vote for a re-written deal.
The British prime minister is planning to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this week, and aims to speak to the leader of every EU country in the days ahead.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will travel to Berlin, Brussels and Copenhagen, while Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay is continuing his dialogue with the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox -- a key voice in the Brexit debate inside Cabinet -- will set out in a speech expected on Tuesday how the most contentious part of the Brexit deal, the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border, could be changed.
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After Parliament rejected the draft withdrawal agreement in a January vote, the U.K. is on course to plunge out of the EU on March 29 with no new trade arrangement in place. Business leaders are becoming increasingly anxious about a no-deal Brexit and frustrated at the lack of political progress to stop what economists fear would be a major hit to the U.K. economy.
Cabinet ministers opposing a no-deal split will tackle May directly this week. Ministers including Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Justice Secretary David Gauke will tell the premier that Parliament is likely to order her to seek an extension to Brexit talks rather than risk economic damage by crashing out of the EU without a deal, and that she might as well take the decision herself, according to two people familiar with their plans.
The risk for May in following this advice would be that it infuriates pro-Brexit Tories. They argue that departing without a deal would be better than the terms she’s negotiated, and that the option should be kept open as a negotiating ploy to scare the EU.
May knows that gaining headway in Brussels will depend largely on whether she can show a united front at home. On Saturday, she wrote to each of her party’s lawmakers asking them to sacrifice “personal preferences” to unite in the “higher service of the national interest.”