Brexit will be delayed if MPs reject Theresa May's deal admits her chief negotiator
- Theresa May's chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins says MPs will have a choice between her deal or a lengthy delay to Brexit.
- Robbins said any extension of Article 50 would be "long" and would force MPs to back her deal.
- The comments effectively rule out a no-deal Brexit.
- However, any extension would need to be agreed unanimously by other EU countries.
LONDON - Theresa May will force MPs to choose between backing her deal with the EU, or allowing a "long" delay to Brexit, her chief negotiator has admitted.
Olly Robbins was overheard in Brussels by ITV News saying that MPs would be made to believe that any further rejection of her deal would lead to the two-year Article 50 period being extended by a "long" time.
"[We have] 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..." he was overheard saying.
A Downing Street spokesperson said they would not respond to reports of a private conversation.
The comments are the first admission from a senior colleague of May that the government will seek an extension to Article 50 rather than allow a no-deal Brexit.
No date has yet been set for another parliamentary vote on the prime minister's Brexit deal following its historic defeat in the House of Commons last month, suggesting that the deal will not be put to a vote again until March.
The delayed vote means that May's government will have very little time to pass the legislation required to ratify the deal, meaning that a short extension of the Article 50 process is now likely.
However, Robbins unguarded comments suggest that the government is preparing for the possibility of a much more significant extension.
Asked about the comments on Wednesday, the Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the prime minister was still "committed to leaving on the 29th March," but did not rule out an extension altogether.
"Any extension is not a unilateral decision. That is just the facts of the case," he told BBC Radio 4.
"It is not in anyone's interest to have an extension with no clarity."
In further comments that will enrage Conservative Brexiteers, Robbins also admitted that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop, which is intended to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit, was actually designed as a "bridge" to a longer-term close relationship with the EU.
"The big clash all along is the 'safety net'," Robbins said. "We agreed a bridge but it came out as a 'safety net.'"
Conservative opponents of the backstop have long-suspected that it is in realtiy an attempt to tie Britain permanently to EU trading rules.
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