The British government has denied that it was secretly plotting to force the Parliament into a last-minute choice on Brexit between a rejigged deal or a lengthy delay.
ITV television reported that it had overheard Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins in a Brussels bar saying the European Union would probably let Britain extend its March 29 departure date.
Such a move would effectively mean removing the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
ITV reported that it eavesdropped on Robbins, one of the key figures in the Brexit negotiations, talking to colleagues in a hotel bar on Monday.
He was said to have indicated that if lawmakers — who overwhelmingly rejected the deal struck between London and Brussels — did not vote for a rehashed withdrawal agreement, then the delay to Brexit would be “a long one”.
“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension. In the end, they will probably just give us an extension,” he was quoted as saying.
The government insists it is working towards leaving the EU on time, with a deal in place.
A government spokesman said: “We would not comment on alleged remarks from a private conversation which is said to have been overheard in a hotel bar.”
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay denied the reported Robbins comments reflected official government policy.
“We are committed to leaving on March 29,” he told BBC radio.
“It is not in anyone’s interest to have an extension without any clarity.”
May on Tuesday asked MPs for more time to try and revive the Brexit deal in what the opposition said was a ploy to “run down the clock”.
She said the talks were at a crucial stage and MPs needed to hold their nerve to get changes to the withdrawal agreement — notably the insurance provisions on keeping the border with Ireland free-flowing.
Keir Starmer, the main opposition Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman, said Wednesday that May was stringing parliament along “pretending there’s progress”.
Labour has tabled an amendment for debate in parliament on Thursday which would force the government to either put a deal to a vote by February 27 or allow parliament to take control of the Brexit process.