Theresa May has angered pro-Brexit MPs by conceding that the European court of justice would continue to have jurisdiction over the UK during the “implementation period” when Britain leaves the European Union.
In response to a question from Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was the darling of Eurosceptic Tories at the party’s conference last week, the prime minister said a transition deal “may mean we will start off with European court of justice still governing rules we’re part of for that period”.
She went on to stress that long lead-in times meant it was unlikely any new rules would be implemented in that period, which the government expects to be about two years.
But speaking afterwards, Rees-Mogg said: “If the ECJ still has jurisdiction, we will not have left the EU. It is perhaps the most important red line in ensuring the leave vote is honoured.” Asked if that was the implication of May’s statement, he said: “I fear so.”
Jurisdiction of the ECJ during a transition was one of the “red lines” set out by Boris Johnson in an interview with the Sun in the run-up to the Conservative party conference.
May’s wording on EU laws also appeared to raise concerns from other Brexit-supporting politicians.
Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the steering group of a backbench group of Conservative MPs pushing for a decisive Brexit, said: “Most MPs represent leave constituencies, and they may find it hard to explain why we are not taking back control of our laws on day one.” However, he added: “I would want to understand more about this before making any further comment.”
Others were pushing May to make clear that she was ready to walk away from European negotiations.
Charlie Elphicke, the Dover MP who is also a member of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs, said: “It’s clear from the behaviour of Brussels and the Euro parliament we must be ready on day one, deal or no deal. What’s more, we’ll secure a better deal if the EU knows we can walk away from the table.”
May was updating the House of Commons on Monday on the content of her Florence speech last month and the status of the negotiations, which have resumed in Brussels.
Johnson himself signalled his support for May’s position, saying: “Yes, we will mostly have to operate under existing rules during the transition, but we will be able to negotiate proper free trade deals and business will be able to prepare properly for Brexit … What matters is the end state and our freedom to do things differently and better.”
His fellow Brexit campaigner Michael Gove, now the environment secretary, used a strikingly similar argument, tweeting that being “pragmatic” about a transition deal now would buy Britain “maximum freedom to diverge from EU in end state”.
Jeremy Corbyn responded to May’s statement by accusing cabinet ministers of jeopardising Britain’s future by “squabbling” among themselves. “Just at the moment when Britain needs a strong negotiating team,” the Labour leader said, “we have a cabinet at each other’s throats. Half of the Conservative party want the foreign secretary sacked; the other half want the chancellor sacked.”
May was attempting to reassert her authority over the Brexit negotiations, and her fractious party, after a calamitous conference and a weekend of media speculation about the future of the foreign secretary and the chancellor.
Corbyn said that far from injecting new dynamism into the talks as she claimed, the prime minister’s Florence speech had “demonstrated the scale of the mess the government is making of these negotiations”. May insisted the talks were on track and said her government was “getting on with the job of delivering the democratic will of the British people”.
She paid tribute to the work of the Brexit secretary, David Davis, and said progress had been made on all of the withdrawal issues the EU has insisted must be resolved before talks can switch to the future trade relationship between Britain and the EU27.
May underlined the fact that the government was preparing for a “no deal” outcome to the negotiations. “It is also our responsibility as a government to prepare for every eventuality, so that is exactly what we are doing.” She reiterated her hope of striking a “unique and ambitious economic partnership” with the EU27. She repeated her expectation, spelled out in the Florence speech, of an implementation period lasting “around two years”.
As May delivered her statement, the government published two white papers on the legislation it believes will be necessary to strike new trade deals and implement a new customs system in preparation for Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, urged the prime minister to bring an end to the “backstabbing briefing and counter-briefing from her ministers and their surrogates” and called on her to sack the foreign secretary, whose “back-seat driving” he described as damaging.
Earlier on Monday, the European commission dismissed a statement released by Downing Street overnight suggesting May would tell the EU27 the the ball was in their court. At his daily press briefing in Brussels, the commission’s chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, insisted that the next move had to come from the UK. “The ball is entirely in the UK court for the rest to happen,” he said.
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