Brexit delay plan sparks Tory MP backlash
Proposals to delay the UK's final departure from the EU until 2021 have been dismissed as "a rather poor attempt at kicking the can down the road" by arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Leave-backing Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Penny Mordaunt also signalled concern that the UK's withdrawal from the EU should proceed swiftly.
British prime minister Theresa May told leaders of the remaining EU member states in Brussels that she was ready to consider an extension by "a matter of months" of the transition period, which is currently due to stretch until December 2020.
The transition - during which the UK would remain in the single market and customs union and subject to EU rules - is intended to provide time for authorities and officials to prepare for new arrangements following the official date of Brexit in March 2019.
Allowing it to be extended would provide flexibility to cover any gap until a future trade and security partnership is implemented, avoiding the need for a hard border in Ireland during this period, Mrs May suggested.
- Brexit: Leo Varadkar references IRA border bombing to emphasise journey to peace
- Theresa May considers delaying Brexit
- Brexit vote would be overturned if EU referendum was run again, survey finds
- Family of lorry driver killed in IRA bomb at customs post fear return of hard border
- Robin Swann derides DUP for damaging unionism
- Front cover of The Spectator magazine claims EU has used Ireland to 'take control' of Brexit
- Agreeing backstop deal a matter of trust, says Leo Varadkar
- Fianna Fáil says Dublin government is failing to prepare for Brexit
But she insisted that any delay would "only be for a matter of months", adding: "This is not expected to be used, because we are working to ensure that we have that future relationship in place by the end of December 2020."
The proposal sparked a fierce backlash from Brexiteers, with former Ukip leader Nigel Farage warning it "may mean we never leave at all".
And Mr Rees-Mogg said it risked "very substantial costs" for the UK, which would have to make additional contributions running into billions of pounds into EU budgets and would almost certainly lose its current rebate.
An extended transition period "means we are in the EU for longer when the EU can make rules for the UK over which we would have no say and we would be paying for the privilege", the North East Somerset MP told Sky News.
"The government doesn't have endless money. It has to make choices. The question the government has to answer is if this costs billions of pounds, is it better to give the money to the EU or better to sort out the issues with Universal Credit?"
Mr Rees-Mogg said an extension would not break the deadlock in withdrawal negotiations, because the EU would still demand a "backstop" arrangement to keep the Irish border open.
Actor Sir Michael Caine joined Tory MPs by backing Brexit.
He told Today: "People say 'Oh, you'll be poor, you'll be this, you'll be that'.
"I say I'd rather be a poor master of my fate than having someone I don't know making me rich by running it."
UK officials said that Mrs May continues to regard the EU backstop - under which Northern Ireland would remain within the European customs union until a broader trade agreement was finalised - as "unacceptable".
Mr Rees-Mogg questioned whether Cabinet had given its support for an extended transition when it met for a mammoth three-hour discussion of Brexit on Tuesday.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Environment Secretary Mr Gove said it was "vital" that Britain leaves the EU at the "earliest possible point".
And International Development Secretary Ms Mordaunt said: "The Prime Minister was very clear this morning in the statements she has given that she recognises the need to do things swiftly, not least because that is what the public expects."
Tory MP Nadine Dorries accused Mrs May of "stalling", and repeated her call for former Brexit secretary David Davis to replace her as leader.
And Conservative former minister Nick Boles - who is pushing for a "soft Brexit" move to temporary membership of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) - warned Mrs May is losing the confidence of her party.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the EU was demanding "humiliating concessions" because the PM's Brexit plans fail to fix the problem of the Irish border.
"I'm afraid she is losing the confidence now of colleagues of all shades of opinion," said Mr Boles.
"They are close to despair at the state of this negotiation because there is a fear that both the government and the European Union are trying to run out the clock, that they are trying to leave this so late that they can credibly say there is no alternative but a no-deal Brexit, and most people agree that would be chaos.
"That is not an acceptable way for a leader of a government to behave."
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: "Extending the transition? More like kicking the can further down the road and delaying, by a bit, driving off the cliff.
"No deal the PM can secure will be as good as staying in the EU."
Mrs May had initially suggested an "implementation period" of around two years after Brexit, but later accepted a 21-month transition ending on the last day of 2020.
It emerged yesterday that EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is ready to discuss a further year's extension to allow time to find a solution to keep the Irish border open.
UK officials stressed the Prime Minister is not herself proposing any extension to the period already agreed but was ready to consider the idea that had "emerged".
This week's summit had been billed as "the moment of truth" when agreement was needed to allow time for ratification in the Westminster and European parliaments.
But there was no breakthrough, and a mooted special Brexit summit in November was ditched after Mr Barnier told the EU27 he needed "much more time".
There was no mention of Brexit in the five pages of conclusions released at the end of the two-day gathering.