LONDON – European Union (EU) chief negotiator Michel Barnier will meet British Prime Minister Theresa May in London on Monday, with tensions in her government over her Brexit strategy coming to a head.
Barnier will discuss the upcoming negotiations with the UK's Brexit minister David Davis ahead of talks between British and EU officials in Brussels from Tuesday to Friday.
London and Brussels struck a preliminary deal on key Brexit issues in December but are yet to discuss the conditions for a post-Brexit transition period and future trade relations.
Britain has said it wants to leave the European single market and customs union and retain strong economic ties with the EU, but May has yet to bring together her divided government to produce a final plan.
High-profile pro-Brexit ministers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are later this week set for a cabinet meeting showdown with europhile ministers, led by finance minister Philip Hammond, as they battle to shape Britain's post-Brexit vision.
Johnson and Gove are ready to deliver an ultimatum to prevent May backtracking on plans to fully leave the customs union, according to the Sunday Times.
Brexit supporters within May's Conservative Party would be prepared to replace the premier with Johnson and install Gove as his deputy, with influential backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg drafted in as finance minister, the newspaper reported.
Such a move would enrage the sizeable minority of pro-EU Tory MPs, raising the spectre of another general election.
The internal tensions exploded into public view last week when Rees-Mogg, who is the bookmaker's favourite to become the next party leader, accused Hammond's department of "fiddling the books" in providing gloomy forecasts of Brexit's economic impact.
Tory MP and Brexit supporter Bernard Jenkin wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that May "can only command a majority in parliament on her present policy," a thinly veiled threat that Brexiteers would be prepared to bring down her vulnerable government.
Pro-EU interior minister Amber Rudd hit back on Sunday, telling BBC's Andrew Marr: "I have a surprise for the Brexiteers, which is the committee that meets in order to help make these decisions is more united than they think."
Downing Street on Friday rejected a Financial Times report that ministers are privately considering a customs union deal for post-Brexit trade, which could hamper its ability to strike trade deals with the rest of the world.
In an interview in Shanghai with Bloomberg TV, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox ruled this out, saying: "We have to be outside of that to take advantage of those growing markets."
Britain voted to leave the European Union in a momentous referendum in June 2016 that revealed a bitterly divided nation, sparked a tumultuous period in British politics and caused global shockwaves.
Although Britain will officially leave the bloc in March next year, it hopes to secure a two-year transition deal to taper the effects of Brexit.
Terms of the transition deal will be on the negotiating table this week, with key issues up for debate including immigration, Britain's ability to strike third-party trade deals, and whether Britain will have to abide by new EU laws.
Barnier has said that Britain "will continue to have all the economic benefits, therefore it must apply all the rules" during this period.
However, May appears set on a collision course with the EU after questioning the rights of EU citizens who arrive in Britain during the transition period.
May insisted Friday she was "doing what the British people want" and going nowhere despite the pressure.
Sensing a lack of coordination in government on Brexit, pro-EU politicians have become increasingly vociferous.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna, head of a new coalition of pro-EU groups formed this week, told AFP on Friday that the government was "trying to deliver something that isn't deliverable".
"If the people started this in 2016, they should be the ones who decide how we end it, and whether or not we do actually leave," Umunna told AFP while campaigning in Brixton in south London.