Theresa May said Sunday that she would seek further concessions from Brussels on the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU after Brexit, but that she would not reopen talks on the controversial backstop arrangement.
Despite serious opposition from her party to the text setting out the U.K.’s departure from the EU and a series of government resignations last week, May stood behind the 585-page draft Withdrawal Agreement in an interview with Sky’s Ridge on Sunday show.
The interview is part of a government push to sell the deal to MPs and the country which has included a rare radio phone-in appearance by the prime minister Friday morning and soft interview with the Daily Mail about how she is dealing personally with the pressure.
In the Ridge interview, she emphasized that what is still up for negotiation is the future relationship between the EU and the U.K. beyond the Brexit transition period, a seven-page outline of which was published Wednesday.
“We won’t agree the leaving part until we’ve got what we want in the future relationship,” May said, revealing she planned to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels this week.
The prime minister could face a leadership challenge as early as next week.
“Getting that future relationship right is necessary. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” she said.
But while critics of her deal differ on what they view as an optimal future relationship with the EU, it is the backstop arrangement that is causing unease in her party as well as outright hostility. The backstop is intended as an insurance option that would kick in once the stand-still transition period comes to an end.
Under its provisions, the U.K. would remain in a Single Customs Territory with the EU, applying the bloc’s quota and tariff regime. Most controversially, the backstop can only be terminated if both sides agree — giving the EU an effective veto.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, May’s former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said the prime minister should reopen negotiations on the withdrawal text rather than be “blackmailed and bullied,” raising particular concerns over the fact the U.K. is unable to withdraw from the backstop unilaterally.
But May emphasized that the backstop was only an “insurance policy.”
“What we’re talking about is a backstop that we never intend to use, [and] it’s not the only option on the table,” she said.
“The backstop can only ever be temporary. Under the legal arrangements of the EU they cannot enter into a permanent relationship on the terms of this backstop,” she said.
“The thing that’s going to make a difference to people’s lives is the future relationship,” she said, adding: “It’s in the national interest to get that deal right.”
The prime minister could face a leadership challenge as early as next week amid widespread dissatisfaction in her party about the deal she presented to Cabinet Wednesday.
When asked if she knew whether enough Tory MPs had submitted a request to trigger a confidence vote in her leadership among Conservative party members, she said: “As far as I know, no.”
What I said was we couldn’t stop it because we don’t have the votes in parliament to do so” — Jeremy Corbyn
“A change of leadership at this point isn’t going to make the negotiations easier and it isn’t going to make the parliamentary arithmetic any easier,” she said, referring to the fact that the Conservative party doesn’t have a majority in the U.K. House of Commons.
May declined to describe how the government would respond if it loses the parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal, stating “we’re not at that point” yet.
However, she said she was determined to “deliver what people in the country voted for,” and criticized a lack of clarity from other political parties on their stance to the Brexit deal, stating that opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn “hasn’t even fully read it.”
Interviewed on the same program, Corbyn said the government should accept it would not win the backing of MPs for the deal and that it should go back to Brussels and negotiate to stay in a customs union with the EU.
“We’re saying now to the government you’ve haven’t got a majority in parliament for this. You don’t have majority support in the country. You have to go back and do something better,” he said.
Corbyn was also questioned on his stance on a second national vote on Brexit, having previously come under fire for saying in an interview with Der Spiegel that “Brexit can’t be stopped.”
He qualified that position by saying: “What I said was we couldn’t stop it because we don’t have the votes in parliament to do so.”
Asked if there should be a second referendum, he said, “I don’t think that’s an option we’re going to get given.” But pressed again he added, “I think it’s an option for the future but it’s not an option for today. If you had a referendum today what’s it going to be on? What’s the question going to be?”
He added that he didn’t know how he would vote in such a hypothetical referendum.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The Withdrawal Agreement … has lots of flaws within it. But more fundamentally there is no clarity whatsoever about the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU. So the House of Commons is going to be asked to effectively endorse a blindfold Brexit.”