Boris Johnson today warned his Cabinet there is still ‘a significant amount of work to be done’ to thrash out a Brexit deal, saying the UK must be ready to leave at Halloween with no agreement
The Prime Minister told his senior team there was a ‘good way forward’ as he updated them on progress in a conference call.
He said the package being sktetched out could ‘secure all our interests’, get rid of the hated Irish border backstop, and honour the Good Friday Agreement.
But Mr Johnson cautioned there was no guarantee of success, and the government had to keep preparing to leave by his ‘do or die’ October 31 deadline.
The guarded optimism came as a backlash from Tory hardliners and the DUP threatened to derail his fledgling deal.
A moment of truth is looming within the next 48 hours, after negotiations were dramatically brought back from the dead.
The sides are now in intensive negotiations on a new ‘best of both worlds’ blueprint thought to involve Northern Ireland technically staying in the UK’s customs union – but Britain collecting tariffs on the EU’s behalf.
It should become clear by Tuesday whether an agreement is possible – and it would be finalised at a crucial summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
However, even if those hurdles are overcome it is unclear whether Mr Johnson will be able to hold together his fragile political coalition to get a package through the Commons in a special ‘Super Saturday’ sitting. The DUP fired a warning shot last night that a dual status arrangement ‘cannot work’ and Northern Ireland ‘must stay in a full UK customs union’.
Meanwhile, Remainer MPs are plotting an ambush to force a referendum whether there is a deal or not, in a bid to cancel Brexit altogether.
Boris Johnson (pictured visiting a school in Beaconsfield last week) is pleading with EU leaders to help him ‘finish off ‘ Brexit as a backlash from Tory hardliners and the DUP threatens to derail his fledgling deal
Emmanuel Macron (left) and Angela Merkel are meeting for dinner in France tonight in what could be a key moment for the Brexit talks
A Downing Street spokesman said this afternoon: ‘The Prime Minister updated Cabinet on the current progress being made in ongoing Brexit negotiations, reiterating that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31.
‘The Prime Minister said there was a way forward for a deal that could secure all our interests, respect the Good Friday Agreement, get rid of the backstop and get Brexit done by October 31 so we can push on with domestic agenda, investing in our NHS, tackling violent crime, and dealing with the cost of living.’
Earlier, a senior government source insisted the next couple of days would be critical.
‘He’ll be talking to Merkel, Macron and Juncker by the end of Monday to see if there’s agreement on a ‘landing zone’ for Northern Ireland and customs,’ they told the Sunday Times.
‘The message is: ‘Let’s finish this off.’ The alternative is to agree a friendly version of no deal and finish it that way.’
In a sign of Downing Street’s nervousness about the prospects of a revolt by Tory hardliners, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg has been deployed to warn there will need to be compromises.
Mr Rees-Mogg, was a thorn in the side of Theresa May over Brexit before joining Mr Johnson’s administration, said the Prime Minister had dedicated his political career to the cause of EU withdrawal.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Rees-Mogg said: ‘In the final stages of the Brexit negotiation, compromise will inevitably be needed, something even the staunchest Leavers recognise albeit unwillingly – but as a Leaver Boris can be trusted.
‘He wants to take back control and has dedicated his political career to this noble cause. If he thinks the ship of state is worth an extra ha’porth of tar he deserves support.’
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned the mooted plan, which emerged following a breakthrough meeting between Mr Johnson and Irish premier Leo Varadkar last week – ‘cannot work’.
The scheme, intended to avoid the need for customs controls on the island of Ireland, would see Northern Ireland remain politically in a customs union with the EU but it would be administered by the UK.
However Mr Dodds told the Italian La Repubblica newspaper that Northern Ireland ‘must stay in a full UK customs union, full stop’.
‘It cannot work because Northern Ireland has to remain fully part of the UK customs union,’ he said.
He added: ‘There is a lot of stuff coming from Brussels, pushed by the Europeans in the last hours, but one thing is sure: Northern Ireland must remain fully part of the UK customs union. And Boris Johnson knows it very well.’
The PM’s Brexit ‘sherpa’ David Frost (pictured in Brussels last week) has been engaged in intensive negotiations with EU counterparts
British officials have so far remained tight-lipped over the nature of the new plan.
If speculation is correct, it would create a customs border in the Irish Sea with goods travelling from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland being subject to tariffs which Britain would collect on behalf of the EU.
Businesses would then be able to claim a rebate once they had shown the goods were for consumption in the UK market.
However it would mean that Northern Ireland would be able to benefit from any post-Brexit trade deals the UK struck with other countries around the world.
Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron are meeting for dinner in France tonight, in what could be a key waypointer to the prospects of success.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier is then due to brief EU ambassadors and MEPs tomorrow on progress in the talks.