The senior minister told The Scotsman that without a breakthrough in renegotiating the Irish border backstop insurance policy in the next two weeks, there would not be enough time to pass vital legislation to deliver Brexit.
The comments are at odds with Downing Street’s insistence that a request to extend Article 50 is unlikely to be granted by the EU and would not deliver on the result of the Brexit referendum.
And senior EU officials yesterday issued their strongest rejection yet of the Prime Minister’s calls for the withdrawal agreement between Brussels and London to be reopened so that legally binding changes can be made to the backstop insurance policy.
Mrs May will travel to Northern Ireland today following a meeting of Cabinet to reaffirm the UK’s “absolute commitment” to preventing a hard border between the North and the Republic, while holding meetings with local businesses and political leaders. But despite the Prime Minister ruling out any delay to Brexit, the Cabinet source said the UK’s departure as scheduled on 29 March was becoming “less likely”.
Mrs May has set herself a deadline of Valentine’s Day to either hold a vote on a renegotiated offer from the EU or allow MPs another chance to “take control” of the Brexit process and force their own alternatives through parliament.
The source described the vote on or before 14 February as “pivotal” and warned avoiding another heavy defeat for the government relied on Mrs May’s mission to Brussels being successful.
Crucial legislation on post-Brexit management of areas such as agriculture and fisheries, as well as an implementation bill that would be needed to enact a deal with Brussels if MPs give their approval, would have just six weeks from that point to be passed by parliament.
The minister said that without a deal, an extension to Article 50 was increasingly likely, potentially delaying Brexit until the summer.
“Leaving on 29 March is less likely because of the lack of time we now have, even if MPs sat on Saturdays,” the Cabinet source said.
In a blow to Mrs May’s hopes of saving her Brexit deal, a senior Brussels official said nobody in the EU was considering offering legally binding assurances on the backstop.
Speaking after talks with MPs on the House of Commons Brexit committee, European Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr said the 90-minute meeting had confirmed the EU was right to start preparations for a no-deal outcome.
The comments from commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man heap further pressure on the Prime Minister as she prepares to go to Brussels to seek a renegotiation of the UK’s withdrawal agreement.
And in response to reports he had told the Brexit committee the EU would be ready to consider legally binding assurances, Mr Selmayr tweeted: “On the EU side, nobody is considering this. Asked whether any assurance would help to get the withdrawal agreement through the Commons, the answers of MPs were … inconclusive.
“The meeting confirmed that the EU did well to start its no-deal preparations in December 2017.”
The European Union’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the backstop was the “only operational solution” to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. Mr Barnier held talks with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. He said there was “full agreement that [the] withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened”.
Mr Barnier said the EU was “ready to work on alternative solutions during transition”, restating Brussels’ position the backstop had to remain in place unless and until a replacement could be agreed.
Mr Rutte said: “The Withdrawal Agreement remains the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was ready to listen to proposals to solve the border “riddle”, but needed to hear from Britain how it thought it could be done.
She said: “To solve this riddle, you have to be creative and you have to listen to one another.”