Theresa May has told MPs she is waiting for the EU to decide what future relationship it wants with the UK, following reports that the prime minister is trying to postpone a cabinet showdown over the shape of any post-Brexit trade deal until next year.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Mrs May suggested that the ball was in the EU’s court. But opposition MPs claimed the prime minister was simply trying to defer a decision in a cabinet that is paralysed by division.
Mrs May told MPs that her Florence speech last month had set out aspirations for a “deep and special” partnership with the EU, and that it was now time for the rest of the bloc to respond.
Seizing upon an agreement by the EU27 leaders at last week’s summit that they would begin internal discussions about the shape of a trade deal and a transitional arrangement ahead of the next summit in December, Mrs May said: “The 27 have agreed it’s for them to consider what they want to see from that future relationship so that the next phase of negotiations can begin.”
But Labour’s Hilary Benn, chair of the Commons Brexit committee, said that many EU leaders had no idea what the UK wanted because “the cabinet doesn’t seem to have reached its own view”.
One cabinet minister separately told the Financial Times that Mrs May’s top team had still not discussed how close the UK and the EU should be after Brexit.
Downing Street neither confirmed nor denied a report in the Sun newspaper saying that Mrs May would defer a cabinet discussion on Britain’s future relationship with the EU until the start of next year.
But the prime minister suggested that the cabinet had yet to reach a decision, telling MPs: “This is a negotiation and there will be different levels of detail at different stages of the negotiation.”
Meanwhile, allies of Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker engaged in a public clash on Monday over an account of a private dinner in Brussels between the two leaders that portrayed the prime minister as despondent and begging for help from the EU.
Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s former co-chief of staff, accused Martin Selmayr, Mr Juncker’s chief of staff, of leaking details of last week’s meeting to a German newspaper, saying it was symptomatic of EU efforts to derail Brexit negotiations.
“After constructive [European] Council meeting, Selmayr does this,” Mr Timothy said on Twitter. “Reminder that some in Brussels want no deal or a punitive one.”
Mr Selmayr denied leaking the account to Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, saying Brussels is not “punitive on Brexit” and insisting that Mr Juncker never characterised Mrs May as disheartened or pleading for help.
The FAZ report claimed that an exhausted-looking Mrs May feared being toppled by enemies at home, and that she had told Mr Juncker that she had no room for manoeuvre and was desperate for help from the European side of the Brexit negotiations.
But Mr Juncker told the BBC on Monday that he was “shocked” by the account, saying that Mrs May was “in good shape and she was not tired”.
Asked if she had pleaded for help, he said: “No, no. That’s not the style [of] British prime ministers.”