In a curt riposte to claims from the EU that the two sides were nearing agreement, the Prime Minister insisted she will not buckle as the negotiations reach their final phase. She also signalled her readiness to walk away from the talks unless the deal returns control of laws, borders and money to the UK. “I will not compromise on what people voted for in the referendum. This will not be an agreement at any cost,” she said. Her salvo at the EU followed testy exchanges between the two sides in the deadlocked negotiations yesterday.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier irritated Downing Street by suggesting a deal was ready to be presented to Cabinet ministers as early as this morning.
But Theresa May rubbished his claim, suggesting his remarks should be taken with “a bucket of salt”.
The spat, after a round of talks between the two negotiating teams in Brussels dragged on until nearly 3am yesterday morning, appeared to have all but extinguished hopes of a special summit this month to rubber stamp a Brexit deal.
Negotiators need to make further progress on resolving the dispute over the future of the Northern Ireland border by midnight tomorrow to stop the issue being pushed back until a December gathering of EU leaders.
With no sign of a thaw in the frozen talks yesterday, the Prime Minister used her annual set-piece speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at the Guildhall in the City of London to sound a fresh warning of her readiness to walk out of the Brexit talks.
“Overwhelmingly, the British people want us to get on with delivering Brexit, and I am determined to deliver for them,” she said.
“I want them to know that I will not compromise on what people voted for in the referendum. This will not be an agreement at any cost.
“Any deal must ensure we take back control of our laws, borders and money. It must secure the ability to strike new trade deals around the world.
“And it must also be a deal that protects jobs, our security and our precious Union.”
Brexit news: Theresa May has sent the EU a dire warning
Mrs May admitted that the negotiations had become “intensely difficult” but vowed to continue to strive for a deal that delivered on the 2016 EU referendum result.
She added: “The negotiations for our departure are now in the endgame.
“And we are working extremely hard, through the night, to make progress on the remaining issues in the Withdrawal Agreement, which are significant.
“Both sides want to reach an agreement. But what we are negotiating is immensely difficult. I do not shy away from that.
“The Brexit talks are not about me or my personal fortunes.
“They are about the national interest – and that means making what I believe to be the right choices, not the easy ones.”
Mrs May’s Cabinet will hold fresh talks about Brexit today focused on the possibility of a walk-out from the talks and a future trade relationship with the EU based on World Trade Organisation rules.
The potentially fractious meeting at Downing Street follows a series of warnings from ministers that a deal that leaves the UK closely tied to the EU after Brexit will be unaccessable.
One minister was yesterday reported to have described the Prime Minister’s proposal for a deal as “self-harm” to the nation while another said the time had come to “walk away”.
Brexit news: Theresa May has refused to bend to the EU’s will during Brexit talks
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, a leading Leave campaigner in the run up to the referendum, yesterday openly warned that the Cabinet could reject an unsatisfactory deal agreed between the Prime Minister and the EU.
“The important thing is that there are two checks on this deal – there is Cabinet and there is Parliament.
“Cabinet’s job is to put something to Parliament that is going to deliver on the referendum result,” Ms Mordaunt said.
Her warning shot followed an appeal from former foreign secretary Boris Johnson for the Cabinet to “mutiny” against the Prime Minister’s proposals.
“No member of the Government, let alone the Cabinet, could conceivably support them,” Mr Johnson said.
Mr Barnier yesterday told a private meeting of European diplomats that the deal was largely ready and only needed the backing of Mrs May’s Cabinet to go ahead.
In remarks leaked by sources at the meeting, the EU chief negotiator said: “On the basis of our common efforts, the parameters of a possible agreement are very largely defined.
“On the British side, the cabinet will meet tomorrow [Tuesday] to examine these parameters. We are at an extremely sensitive moment. The smallest public comment from my side could be exploited by those who want the negotiation to fail.”
Brexit news: Theresa May pictured with French president Emmanuel Macron over the Remembrance weekend
He added: “As of this moment, this agreement is still not reached. As in any negotiation, the final stretch is always the most difficult.”
One diplomat at the meeting said: “We all know that this is it.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman yesterday dismissed Mr Barnier’s reported suggestion that a deal was close.
“I’ve talked about taking things with a pinch of salt before. That applies here. I’d apply a bucket of salt to this one. Negotiations are ongoing,” he said.
Officials from both sides were locked in talks throughout Sunday that lasted until 2.45am yesterday in an attempt to find a solution to the dispute over the so-called Northern Ireland “backstop”, an insurance policy governing border checks in case Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU cannot come into force immediately after the end of the country’s transition out of the bloc in December 2020.
Downing Street said that there were “substantial issues still to be overcome” in relation to the “backstop” measure aimed at ensuring the frontier between Northern Ireland and Ireland remains open no matter what happens in the wider Brexit trade deal.
The PM’s spokesman said: “We have made good progress in the negotiations in relation to the withdrawal agreement but there are substantial issues still to be overcome in relation to the Northern Irish backstop.”
Former transport minister Jo Johnson yesterday said he decided to quit Mrs May’s Government last week because he was concerned at reports she was planning a publicity campaign which he said amounted to a “calculated deceit”.
“I challenge the Government to come clean on the cost of Brexit,” he said.
“The reason they can’t look us in the eye, it’s because they know this will leave us worse-off and with less control. It’s a gross abuse of civil service impartiality.”
Mr Johnson added: “There is a sea-change in mood among my Conservative colleagues who are focused by this crisis. I would not be surprised if more colleagues in senior positions speak out.”