Clodagh Kilcoyne | Reuters
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement following winning a confidence vote, after Parliament rejected her Brexit deal, outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, January 16, 2019.
Her statement followed the publication of an eyewitness report that her top Brexit negotiator had said earlier this week that the EU would “in the end … probably just give” Britain an extension to the two-year withdrawal deadline if requested.
Olly Robbins is a senior U.K. civil servant who has helped oversee Britain’s negotiations with the European Commission for much of that period. After a dinner meeting on Monday between his ministerial counterpart, the U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, and the EU’s own chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, an ITV News correspondent overheard Robbins tell two colleagues in a hotel bar that British lawmakers should be made to believe that, “if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one.”
Political analysts say that kind of binary option might pressurize pro-Brexit members of Theresa May’s Conservative Party to support her divorce deal with Europe — despite their continued concerns about a key provision of it — to avoid backlash from constituents who could see any delay to Brexit as a slippery slope to its reversal.
And though May dismissed the account as “bar chatter,” some of her chief political antagonists have seized on Robbins’ reported comments. The Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said the prime minister’s plan had been “rumbled by your own loose-lipped senior Brexit advisor,” and insisted she should publicly prolong the negotiating period to avoid a no-deal scenario that was sought by what he termed “extremists” in her own party.
“The prime minister must stop playing fast and loose,” said Blackford. “Businesses are begging for certainty, the economy is already suffering.”
Days before the start of London Fashion week, that call for clarity was echoed by Caroline Rush, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council (BFC).