Cabinet Office minister says finalizing agreement following month would be ‘manageable’
October is no longer the deadline for a Brexit agreement with the EU, David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister has indicated.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Lidington said the EU would have no problem scheduling an emergency meeting to finalise the deal and that a November deadline would be “manageable”.
His statement did not come as a surprise – insiders have long expected the official timetable to slip – but it means that the EU and the UK government are now openly saying that a final withdrawal agreement will probably take longer than expected.
Both sides have until now been working on the assumption that the deal is supposed be agreed at the European council meeting starting on 18 October, one of the regular summits for EU leaders scheduled well in advance.
The UK is not scheduled to leave the EU until 29 March 2019, but the withdrawal agreement needs to settled some months before to allow the UK and European parliaments time to approve it.
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This week Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said October was no longer an absolute deadline andbut that they must be wrapped up “certainly not later than the beginning of November”.
Lidington told Today he noted what Barnier said “with interest” and that scheduling an emergency European council meeting for November, to allow EU leaders to clinch the deal then, would be straightforward.
“I was Europe minister for six years. I lived through enough emergency European council meetings to know that the European council can call additional meetings when it wants to,” said Lidington, who effectively serves as Theresa May’s deputy.
He added that both sides wanted an agreement “as quickly as possible … but if it slips beyond October into November, I think that is manageable.”
In his interview, he also defended Philip Hammond, the chancellor, who has been criticised by Tory Brexiters for releasing a letter to the Commons Treasury committee saying a no-deal Brexit could eventually increase government borrowing by £80bn a year.
The letter was published on Thursday afternoon – just hours after the government released a set of papers intended to show that, if the UK had to leave the EU with no deal, it would be able to cope.
Lidington said there was “nothing new” in the analysis. “This is provisional analysis that the Treasury published back in January this year and I think all Philip was doing was simply referring back to that in response to a senior member of parliament,” he said.
When it was put to Lidington that the timing of the letter’s release seemed deliberate, he replied: “We are sending out letters to MPs as ministers practically every day of the week trying to meet deadlines that we set ourselves for giving people replies within a certain number of days, otherwise we get ticked off for being dilatory in responding to parliament.”