Theresa May fired a warning shot at Brexit supporters on Tuesday, insisting there was “no suggestion” Britain would leave the EU without an insurance provision to protect against a hard border in Northern Ireland.
At a speech in Belfast, May would only accept that technology could “play a part” in any alternative arrangements and that she would not countenance anything that would disrupt the lives of border communities.
Brexit supporters immediately expressed their alarm at some of May’s language, which they fear could be read as a step back from previous assurances. “She knows what she promised us,” one ERG source said. “Even if she didn’t mean what she said, we do.”
The comments came as May prepared to meet EU leaders in Brussels for the first time since the historic defeat of her Brexit deal, where she is expected to formally request the reopening of the withdrawal agreement in order to address concerns about the backstop.
The prime minister will travel to the Belgian capital on Thursday, meeting the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU parliament president Antonio Tajani, and the European council president. Donald Tusk. Both Tusk and Juncker have been adamant that the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened.
Number 10 sources suggested they did not expect a warm reception, but that it would signal the start of a new diplomatic process, involving proposals on the backstop worked on by MPs and ministers.
Earlier on Tuesday, May told her cabinet she would not countenance any delay to the UK’s exit on 29 March, a message to ministers such as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid who have suggested at least some delay might now be inevitable. Ministers who are more pessimistic about the prospects of the UK leaving on time with a deal held their tongues in the meeting after May’s warning.
“She was pretty clear she had no time for anyone calling for it to be extended,” one cabinet source said.
However, senior government sources increasingly believe the impasse may not be resolved until March, given no full EU council summit is due until late that month. That may ultimately become an excuse, some believe, for the prime minister to delay the UK’s exit in order to finalise any compromise.
In cabinet, ministers including Amber Rudd and Michael Gove are understood to have underlined how they did not believe the UK public had fully comprehended the severe damage no deal would do.