Theresa May promised her deal will not be done ‘at any cost’
Reports of progress – and a thumbs up gesture from Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab as he left – sent the pound soaring amid optimism that a deal will be done by Christmas.
But the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier sounded a grim note, denying agreement was close and suggesting he had not even heard of the latest potential breakthrough on the Irish question.
The key sticking point in exit talks is the “backstop” contingency plan to avoid re-establishing a “hard border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, if a permanent solution has not been found.
Talks are centred on a scheme that would keep the UK in the EU customs union temporarily, avoiding the need for new checks on cross-border trade.
The UK insists any such arrangement cannot trap Britain against its will and there must be a way for it to get out if trade talks with Brussels break down.
Some ministers and MPs further insist that Britain must have the power, without EU approval, to end any customs union membership – a demand Ireland and the EU are resisting.
Today in Downing Street, ministers heard from influential Attorney General Geoffrey Cox that Ireland’s new willingness, expressed in a phone call with Mrs May on Monday, to consider a “review mechanism” to end such an arrangement was a “major” step.
Sources close to talks say it is significant if Europe is prepared to consider giving Britain a way out of the backstop that does not rely on a broader UK-EU relationship being hammered out first.
EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier denied that the Brexit deal was done
“Don’t be under the illusion that there isn’t a lot of work to do.”
But it is expected to be complicated and top barrister Mr Cox will now work intensively to find an answer that satisfies both the UK and the EU.
Success could pave the way for swift agreement with the EU on the terms of Britain’s exit next March 29, including Ireland, the divorce Bill and EU citizens’ rights, and then on the next step of finalising a “future framework” outline vision for post-Brexit trade, security and other relationships.
If Mrs May and the EU can agree those two elements, the package could be approved by EU leaders and voted on in Parliament by Christmas.
But amid speculation a second Cabinet meeting could be called this week to approve divorce proposals, Downing Street cautioned: “Don’t be under the illusion that there isn’t a lot of work to do.”
A deal is to be finalised soon
Mrs May opened the Cabinet session by promising any exit agreement would be put to ministers first, and would depend on sealing a separate “political declaration” on future relations between the UK and the EU.
Her spokesman said: “The Prime Minister said she was confident of reaching a deal.”
But he added: “She said that, while the UK should aim to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible, this would not be done ‘at any cost’.
“She said that, once agreement was reached on a withdrawal agreement, it remains the case that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and it will be subject to securing an acceptable future framework.”
Irish PM Leo Varadkar yesterday TUES reaffirmed to his own Parliament in Dublin his statement on the telephone with Mrs May on Monday that he could consider “a review clause” for the backstop.
Earlier, Mr Barnier told interviewers: “For now, we are still negotiating and I am not this morning able to tell you that we are close to reaching an agreement.”
Later, in Slovakia, the Frenchman insisted: “The clock is still ticking and we continue the work. Choices have to be made on the British side to finalise this deal.”
He claimed not to recognise talk of “a review clause” for the backstop, telling reporters: ” Don’t believe everything you read.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar said he could consider “a review clause” for the backstop
“We’re willing to consider improvements to the backstop but we need to reach an agreement … Backstop means backstop. “And a backstop cannot have a time-limit. We’ve always said a backstop will stay in place unless and until another solution is found in the context of the future relationship.”
His comments sparked speculation he was irritated by the idea of Mr Varadkar negotiating with Mrs May.
Mr Barnier jealously guards his role of negotiating with Britain on behalf of the bloc of 27 states which are staying in the EU.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt told the Cabinet meeting that voters were not interested in getting regular updates on the talks, like airline passengers who want to hear from the pilot at the start and end of a flight but not in between.
Michael Gove, Environment Secretary
Scotland Secretary David Mundell said passengers might want to hear from the pilot if the flight had not landed long after its due time.
Nervous flyer Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, quipped that a gin and tonic helped in such situations.
The BBC said it had seen notes purporting to show the Government would try to sell a Brexit deal to MPs and voters.
The mood would be one of “measured success .. not all champagne corks popping”, with Mrs May telling the CBI she had “delivered on the referendum” and business leaders and world leaders lined up “to Tweet support for the deal”.
A Government spokesman countered: “The misspelling and childish language in this document should be enough to make clear it doesn’t represent the Government’s thinking.
“You would expect the Government to have plans for all situations. To be clear: this isn’t one of them.”