Brexit could be delayed as British officials 'explore Article 50 extension' with Brussels
British officials are looking at extending the Article 50 process as Theresa May struggles to get MPs behind her Brexit deal, it has been reported.
According to the Telegraph, which cited three EU diplomatic sources, UK officials have been "putting out feelers" on an extension to the two-year process, which formalises Britain's exit from the EU and is set to expire on March 29.
One EU source told the paper: "Until now, this didn’t come up, but we’re hearing it more and more now."
They added: "We presume this is based on some conversations in Westminster, even though we are clear the Government is formally dead against it and doesn’t want to do it."
But Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay denied the claims, telling the BBC: "The Government’s policy is to leave on 29 March."
The report comes just hours after Downing Street slapped down a minister for suggesting the Government could extend Article 50 as it battles to convince MPs to back Theresa May's deal. Such a move would be highly controversial with Brexiteers.
Digital minister Margot James had told the BBC that ministers "might have to extend Article 50" if a rejection of Mrs May's Brexit deal in the Commons next week left them with "very little time" to come up with an alternative.
But Mrs May's spokesman said: "The PM has been very clear on a number of occasions that that is not something we are intending to do."
According to the report, EU sources believe Article 50 could be extended as far as 6 July, when the new European Parliament sits for the first time.
Any delay to Britain's exit would need the approval of the other 27 EU member states.
Mrs May is already pressing EU leaders to grant fresh assurances that the UK will not be permanently locked into the backstop element of the deal, which would tie the UK to EU customs rules if no longer-term way to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland can be found.
Cabinet ministers will today reportedly urge her to "play hardball" and press ahead with the vote on the condition that MPs be given a final say on whether or not to enter the controversial arrangement.
According to the Times, the PM will be advised to give MPs the ability to pull out of the entire Brexit deal after 12 months if they believe Britain is likely to be locked into the backstop. Brexiteer ministers are said to have already discussed the proposal with chief whip Julian Smith.
"It’s time to play hardball with the EU," a source told the paper ahead of today's Cabinet meeting.
'If they dislike the backstop as much as they say they do then they shouldn’t have a problem with parliament having the final say on whether we go into it."