Theresa May insisted that with “95%” of the Brexit deal concluded it is time to “hold our nerve” through the last weeks of negotiations, as she defended her handling of the Brexit negotiations to MPs on Monday (22 October).
Speaking to MPs following last week’s EU summit, at which she appeared to open the way to extend the post-Brexit transition period until December 2021, the UK Prime Minister said that 95% of the Brexit deal had been completed.
Having faced criticism from all sides over her negotiating strategy, which aims for a future trading relationship based around keeping the UK in a single market for goods but not services, May said that the talks were “not about my interest but the national interest.”
She says there is “one real sticking point left and a considerable one” which is how to guarantee no return to a hard border in Ireland.
Talks on the UK’s withdrawal agreement and future trade relations with the EU have been stymied by failure to agree on a backstop or insurance policy to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if an agreement on future EU-UK relations cannot be struck before the end of a 21 month transition period due to start after the UK formally leaves the EU next March
However, May insisted that the EU’s position had shifted and that they were now” actively working” with the UK to find a compromise. She repeated that any deal would involve a temporary EU-UK temporary customs arrangement, which the UK would not be locked into “against our will” and which guaranteed full access for all Northern Irish businesses to Britain.
At a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in London on Monday, ministers were warned that failing to resolve the Irish border question could lead to a return of violence.
“We would be very concerned at any border, any installation, that the people of Ireland would absolutely tear down that border with their own hands,” said Irish senator Frank Feighan.
May also rejected calls for a second referendum on Brexit, describing it as “a politicians’ vote”. On Saturday, an estimated 700,000 people marched through central London to demand a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ on the terms of Brexit.
However, she did not deny that the government was making contingency plans for a possible future referendum.
There is increasing speculation that May will face a leadership challenge from her own party. Under Conservative party rules, 48 MPs (equivalent to 15% of the party’s MPs) can trigger a leadership poll.
That speculation was not eased by the trip by former cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson to Brussels on Monday (22 October) to meet European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier on behalf of the European Research Group of around 60 hard Brexit supporting MPs.
They argued that technological solutions were available that could avoid a hard border in Ireland.