Theresa May gives way on Brexit date as fresh battle lines drawn

Theresa May was forced into a concession over plans to put the date of Brexit into law after Tory rebels threatened to inflict another defeat on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

Prime Minister Theresa May was questioned by the Liaison Committee, with Brexit preparations dominating the agenda. Picture: Getty Images

After insisting that the UK’s 29 March, 2019 departure from the EU would be written into the bill, the government yesterday accepted an amendment that allows MPs to alter the date - but the Prime Minister promised this would only be used in “extremely exceptional circumstances”.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May faced complaints from Tory Brexiteers, with the back bencher Julian Lewis calling for assurances that the UK’s exit date would be shifted “only for a very short period”.

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However, the concession was expected to ensure the Withdrawal Bill cleared the main amendment stage last night without any further changes, following an embarrassing defeat earlier this month that guarantees MPs will get a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit deal late next year.

Mrs May said she believes the UK can agree a full trade agreement with Brussels before Brexit day, despite there being just 15 months until the country’s EU exit.

European officials have signalled that much of next year could be taken up with discussions on a post-Brexit transition period, leaving little time to settle the UK’s final economic relationship with the EU.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said he only expects a ‘political agreement’ to be reached by October 2018, establishing the outlines of the future relationship, but falling far short of a comprehensive trade deal.

Appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee, Mrs May insisted that trade negotiations can be completed by Brexit day.

“That is what we are working to and that is what I believe we can do,” she said. “I and others have made the point in the past that of course we start off at a different point from other third countries... because we’re already a member and already trading with them on a particular basis.”

Publishing draft guidelines for the next phase of talks in Brussels yesterday, Mr Barnier said that any transition period after Brexit would have to end by 31 December, 2020 - three months short of the two year period envisaged by UK ministers.

The guidelines also give Spain an effective veto over the future status of Gibraltar, and rule out any formal agreement giving UK-based banks access to the EU single market.

A spokesman for Number 10 said both issues were a matter for negotiation and that the European Commission was setting out its “initial position”.