Britain could stay in a standstill transition deal with the EU until the end of 2022, Brexit secretary Steve Barclay has said, in a further sign that Tory Eurosceptics are softening their position to try to strike an exit deal with the EU.
Mr Barclay’s admission is crucial. If the transition were extended beyond its projected end date of December 2020 it would allow more time to reconvene the suspended Stormont assembly in Belfast. The body would play a role in the oversight of any deal.
It would also allow more time to put in place new technological systems — what Brexiters call “alternative arrrangements” — to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Mr Barclay’s comments came ahead of a meeting between Boris Johnson, prime minister, and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, in Luxembourg on Monday to explore the terms of the possible deal that Downing Street is now seeking.
Downing St did not deny that Britain might seek to extend the transition until 2022 — a move which would be welcomed by business. But a Number 10 source said: “We don’t see the need for a longer transition period. It’s not something that’s being discussed.”
The two sides remain far apart on the substance of a deal and the EU will insist on upfront guarantees that there can be no return to a hard border in Ireland under any circumstances as part of a final agreement.
Mr Johnson will tell Mr Juncker on Monday that he remains determined to leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, in spite of parliament legislating to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
However Mr Barclay, a leading Eurosceptic, confirmed a new appetite for a deal on Sunday, telling Radio 5’s Pienaar’s Politics that “there is a landing zone we can see”. That optimism is not widely shared in EU capitals.
An extended transition period could be pivotal in any agreement; it preserves existing trading arrangements and buys both sides time. Labour said it would amount to “Brexit in name only”.
Theresa May agreed in her withdrawal deal last November that the transition would end in December 2020 but there could be “a single decision extending the transition period for up to one or two years”.
Mr Barclay, who meets EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday, highlighted this provision, saying that there was “scope for an extension by mutual consent”. His comments annoyed Number 10, but it was telling that there was no official denial.
A longer extension would allow more time to restore the Stormont assembly, suspended for almost three years, to give the people of Northern Ireland a say on the implementation of new EU rules under a revised backstop.
Mr Johnson has proposed keeping Northern Ireland in the single market for agriculture and food, removing the need for some health checks at the border.
But EU diplomats point out that this is only a small step and that, critically, it does not address issues of customs checks, tariffs and other border controls. They say there is no evidence of the “progress” in talks claimed by Downing St.
The prospect of a chaotic no-deal exit has driven many moderate Tories out of the party; on Saturday former universities minister Sam Gyimah became the third former Conservative MP to join the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who are holding their conference in Bournemouth.
However, if Mr Johnson succeeded in formally leaving the EU before an election is held, it would counter the Lib Dems’ biggest political pitch.
Mr Johnson gave a typically bullish interview to the pro-Brexit Mail on Sunday in which he insisted that the UK would break free from its “manacles” like The Incredible Hulk on October 31 if he cannot secure a deal: “The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets.”
The rhetoric is intended to reassure Tory Eurosceptic MPs that he is taking a tough position ahead of talks with Mr Juncker, but it has also caused concern in some European capitals that Mr Johnson is not negotiating in good faith.
One EU diplomat accused Mr Johnson of appearing “erratic” as he vows to break free of the bloc while at the same time playing up the chances of a deal.
“His strategy seems to change day by day,” the diplomat said. “Right now we are getting a lot of aspiration from the UK negotiators and not a lot of substance or concrete proposals. It is not a constructive background to the meeting with Juncker.”