LONDON — Theresa May dodged repeated questioning from Conservative MPs on Monday over when the UK will be taken out of “permanent limbo” with the EU.
The prime minister was asked by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to give an explicit date when the so-called “Brexit backstop” would end.
The backstop is designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event that the UK fails to secure a new customs arrangement before the end of the Brexit transition period.
However, May repeatedly refused to offer a date, telling MPs only that “I don’t want to see the backstop having to be used at all.”
May acknowledged that the public was “rightly concerned” that the backstop would become permanent.
“I need to be able to look the British people in the eye and say this backstop is a temporary solution,” May said.
“People are rightly concerned that what is only meant to be temporary could become a permanent limbo – with no new relationship between the UK and the EU ever agreed.”
The prime minister resisted attempts to put an end date to it, insisting instead that the UK would instead negotiate a break-clause.
“While I do not believe this will be the case — if the EU were not to co-operate on our future relationship, we must be able to ensure that we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely,” May said.
The prime minister accused the EU of seeking a “backstop to the backstop” by refusing to accept May’s plans for a so-called “Temporary Customs Arrangement” which would keep all of the UK temporarily tied to EU customs arrangements.
“The EU says there is not time to work out the detail of this UK-wide solution in the next few weeks,” May said.
“So even with the progress we have made, the EU still requires a ‘backstop to the backstop’- effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy and they want this to be the Northern Ireland-only solution that they had previously proposed.
“We have been clear that we cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom.”
The prime minister also suggested there could be a further parliamentary vote if Brexit talks fail to secure a deal.
“If it were the case at the end of the negotiation process actually it was a no deal… then actually that would come back to this house and then we would see what position this house would take in the circumstances of the time,” May said.
May updated MPs as she prepares to secure a Brexit divorce deal with the EU. Talks broke down on Sunday after the UK scuppered a provisional deal that would have kept Britain tied to EU customs rules indefinitely after Brexit.
Several senior Cabinet ministers have threatened to walk out of government if May refuses to change her plans. A number of Cabinet rebels are set to meet this evening to discuss how to get May to shift her position.
The Cabinet will meet on Tuesday morning to discuss the state of Brexit negotiations before May travels to Brussels on Wednesday evening.