Government will ask MPs to back deal or face lengthy extension to Article 50

PUBLISHED: 08:32 13 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:37 13 February 2019

Olly Robbins gives evidence to the Commons Brexit Committee. Photograph: PA.

Olly Robbins gives evidence to the Commons Brexit Committee. Photograph: PA.

PA Archive/PA Images

The prime minister’s chief EU negotiator has reportedly suggested MPs could be faced with an extended delay to Brexit unless they back her deal.

ITV News reported that Olly Robbins was overheard in a Brussels hotel bar telling colleagues the EU would probably give the Government an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process.

He was said to have indicated that if MPs did not vote for a deal, then the delay to the UK’s final departure would be “a long one”.

“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension. In the end they will probably just give us an extension,” he was quoted as saying.

“Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March... Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one...”

Conservative party vice-chairman Chris Philp later dismissed the report, telling BBC Newsnight: “What a civil servant might speculate in a bar after a few drinks is frankly not that important.”

However the comments by Robbins will reinforce suspicions among MPs that May is trying to “run down the clock” in an attempt to force them to back her agreement.

Tory Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns tweeted: “If true, the PM should stop ignoring the wishes of the British people and disregarding her own red lines.”

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage said Robbins was part of the “Civil Service fifth column” and called for him to be sacked for his combination of “treachery and incompetence”.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “The prime minister has been very clear that we are committed to leaving on March 29.”

The Brexit Secretary, who has met senior MEPs in Strasbourg, added: “What came over was actually that it is not in anyone’s interests to have an extension without any clarity. It is actually very disruptive to the European Parliament.

“They have obviously elections for the parliament and a commission that will be formed at the end of May, so there is no desire on the European side to see what one described to me as an ‘extension in darkness’, where there is no clarity as to why we are extending.”

ITV News also reports that Robbins claims the Irish backstop is not a “safety net” but a “bridge” for a long-term trading relationship, something Theresa May denies.

“The big clash all along is the ‘safety net’,” he is reported as saying. “We agreed a bridge but it came out as a ‘safety net’.”

Who is Olly Robbins?

Whenever Theresa May heads to Brussels on Brexit business the cameras keep her front and centre, but there will be often be another person just out of shot - Olly Robbins.

Known as the mandarin’s mandarin, Robbins has been the PM’s indispensable Europe adviser since she took personal charge of the negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU.

Reputed to be the only person in Whitehall to fully grasp the complexities of the British negotiating position, Robbins heads the Cabinet Office Europe Unit.

However, the unelected civil servant is widely distrusted by Brexiteers, who have accused him of trying to engineer the softest possible break with the EU.

And while his mastery of the detail may be unrivalled, some have also questioned whether he has the required experience negotiating in the corridors and backrooms of Brussels.

Robbins originally worked under former Brexit Secretary David Davis in the Department for Exiting the EU, but moved to Downing Street in September 2017.

Some in the Leave camp believe he was the true architect of the doomed Chequers plan, drawn up in the Cabinet Office while Davis and other Brexit ministers were kept in the dark.

Prior to his Brexit role Robbins had a long Civil Service career, working under every prime minister since Tony Blair, when he served as the Labour leader’s principal private secretary.

Aged 43, the Oxford graduate has held senior roles in the Treasury and Home Office and was also deputy national security adviser under David Cameron.

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