Brussels bar talk spooks Brexiteers ahead of fresh votes
By John Goodrich

An overheard conversation in a Brussels bar has added a fresh twist to the Brexit drama as MPs prepare to cast votes on a motion and amendments in the British parliament on the Valentine's Day.

Olly Robbins, the UK's chief Brexit negotiator, told colleagues in a hotel bar in the Belgian capital this week that MPs would ultimately be offered a choice between a marginally reworked version of Prime Minister Theresa May's deal and a long delay to Brexit in a vote in late March.

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It is unclear whether Robbins – currently one of the most powerful figures in British politics, but normally out of the spotlight – was aware a nearby table was occupied by ITV reporter Angus Walker, but his comments certainly appear to contradict the UK government's official policy.  

As Bloomberg noted, the indication that the government will take no-deal off the table and is prepared to delay exit from the EU goes directly against May's stated position.

Alarmingly for hardline Brexit supporters, Robbins also said the Irish backstop was originally designed as a "bridge" to a future relationship with the EU, not the insurance policy it is now portrayed as. This implies the government planned for a customs union with the EU, something those who want a clean break from the bloc strongly oppose.  

Olly Robbins, Britain's chief Brexit negotiator, arrives at the Cabinet Office in London, Britain, January 28, 2019. /VCG Photo

Olly Robbins, Britain's chief Brexit negotiator, arrives at the Cabinet Office in London, Britain, January 28, 2019. /VCG Photo

Whether Robbins was intentionally overheard – and what he planned to gain if so – is a matter of hot dispute. For hardline Brexiteers, the comments were certainly hard to swallow. 

"As I have said before, Olly Robbins represents the civil service fifth column in our country," Nigel Farage, a high profile Leave campaigner and leader of a new pro-Brexit party, tweeted. "He should be sacked immediately for a combination of treachery and incompetence."

Twitter Screenshot

Twitter Screenshot

On Thursday, MPs will vote on a motion supporting May's continued attempts to make changes to the backstop but also appears to rubber stamp an amendment opposing a no-deal. Members of the European Research Group, a faction of the Conservative Party, are not expected to vote in favor, according to the BBC, and that could mean defeat for the government.

A meaningful vote on the deal has been pushed back, probably until February 27, and Thursday was expected to be uneventful.

But with amendments – including one demanding a substantive vote on the Brexit deal before the end of February and another calling for indicative votes on Brexit options as well as a request for the release of official no-deal briefing papers – also set to be voted on, it could prove an important day after all.  

The machinations came as European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted an update from the EU side on Wednesday. "No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break Brexit impasse."

Twitter Screenshot

Twitter Screenshot

The sentiment was echoed by Guy Verhofstadt, chief Brexit representative for the European Parliament, who tweeted that after meetings with UK officials, "I'm yet to hear of a proposal to break Brexit deadlock" and urged a cross-party solution.

With no sign of a breakthrough, speculation is growing that Robbins's overheard comments are credible – and that May aims to hold the crunch Brexit vote just days before March 29, and after an EU Council summit on March 21-22.

Whether MPs will allow the prime minister to pursue such a plan is another matter, with a cross-party group of moderate lawmakers expected to act to ensure there is no risk of a no-deal at the end of February. 

And that could lead to a bigger shakeup – government resignations may be necessary, and there is growing talk of centrist Labour MPs breaking away from their party.