Theresa May (pictured at Downing Street today) is gathering Cabinet for more crisis talks on Brexit today
Theresa May was offered more hope of a Brexit breakthrough by Angela Merkel today as the PM renewed her vow to avoid a hard Irish border.
Despite the UK facing crashing out in less than eight weeks, the German Chancellor said there was ‘still time’ to end the deadlock.
The intervention from the key EU powerbroker came as Mrs May heads for Northern Ireland vowing to ‘find a way’ to get a deal agreed.
She will use a speech in Belfast this afternoon to acknowledge that it is a ‘concerning time’ but insist the Brexit vote can be honoured without creating a hard line with the Republic.
It has been announced that Mrs May will go to Brussels for crunch talks with Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday.
But the scale of the challenge Mrs May faces has been laid bare by news that Brexiteers dismissed a compromise suggestion at a meeting with Mr Juncker’s chief aide yesterday.
The EU’s most senior official, Martin Selmayr, apparently floated the idea of inserting a legally-binding commitment into the Withdrawal Agreement that would guarantee the Irish border backstop is only temporary.
However, Tory Eurosceptics – branded ‘irreconcilables’ by despairing ministers – made clear that would not be enough to satisfy them.
Having briefed her Cabinet on the state of play this morning, tomorrow Mrs May will hold talks with Northern Ireland’s political leaders including the DUP’s Arlene Foster, probably missing the weekly PMQs clash with Jeremy Corbyn.
Ms Foster – whose 10 MPs are propping Mrs May up in power – today reiterated her opposition to the ‘current backstop’.
But she gave the premier a glimmer of hope by stopping short of calling for the concept of a backstop to be ditched altogether.
‘We will be reiterating our opposition to the current backstop. And the fact that Parliament has now backed that position means that she (Mrs May) has a clear mandate to go back to Brussels,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘Parliament’s mandate is to replace the backstop. The current backstop, as I have said all along, is toxic to those of us living in Northern Ireland, and indeed for unionists right across the United Kingdom, because it would cause the break-up of the United Kingdom into the medium and longer term.’
Speaking to Japanese and German business leaders in Tokyo today, Mrs Merkel stressed that ‘time is pressing’ and businesses using ‘just-in-time’ delivery processes could not afford lengthy customs procedures.
But she added: ‘From a political point of view, there is still time. Two months is not a long time but there is still time, and this should be used by all sides.’
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling also stepped up the pressure on the EU by warning that it will be to blame for a no-deal Brexit.
‘We have taken to our parliament the deal reached in November and our parliament has said no,’ he told the Telegraph.
‘We want to work with the EU to reach a deal but if they are not prepared to do that – they will have to take responsibility that we are heading towards a no-deal exit.
‘If they are not willing to compromise, if they’re not willing to work with us to find common ground – it will be down to them if there is no deal.’
Meanwhile in Westminster, the working group bringing together senior Eurosceptic and former Remain-supporting Tories will continue efforts to agree alternatives to the backstop along the lines of the Malthouse Compromise.
Angela Merkel (pictured on a visit to Japan today) hinted yesterday that she was hopeful the Brexit ‘riddle’ can be solved
Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt was among the ministers at the Cabinet meeting today
Jeremy Hunt (left) and Liam Fox were also at the weekly gathering in Downing Street today
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd is one of the key Remainers in Mrs May’s team
Talks involving Conservatives including Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson along with former Remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green will continue in Whitehall, chaired by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
The first meeting on yesterday was described as ‘detailed and constructive’ by the Brexit department.
A delegation from the Commons Brexit Committee, chaired by Labour’s Hilary Benn, was in Brussels yesterday for talks with Mr Selmayr – who is nicknamed ‘The Monster’.
According to MPs in the room, he asked them whether they would support the deal in Parliament if it included a a legal commitment that the backstop will be temporary.
The idea would involve effectively cutting and pasting the text of letters sent by Mr Juncker and EU council chief Donald Tusk last month into the Withdrawal Agreement.
But Labour MP Pat McFadden told The Times some of the Brexiteers ‘weren’t able to’ say they would vote for the revised deal. Tory Andrea Jenkyns apparently responded that would only take her ’80 per cent of the way’ towards supporting the PM’s package.
In her speech, Mrs May will say: ‘I know this is a concerning time for many people here in Northern Ireland.
‘But we will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland.’
The backstop is effectively an insurance arrangement required by the EU to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains open if no wider deal is agreed on future UK/EU trade.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (left) and Home Secretary Sajid Javid (right) were also in the meeting today
Commons Brexit Committee chair Hilary Benn gave a readout after the meeting with Martin Selmayr yesterday
Mr Selmayr (file picture) apparently floated the idea of inserting a legally-binding commitment into the Withdrawal Agreement that would guarantee the Irish border backstop is temporary
Mr Selmayr tried to play down the proposal afterwards and said the MPs had made clear it might not win them over
It would see the UK enter into a temporary customs union with the EU if no trade deal is sealed by the end of a transition period after Brexit, which lasts until December 2020 and could be extended to the end of 2022.
Northern Ireland would also abide by EU single market rules on goods, to avoid any need for regulatory checks of products crossing the border.
But critics fear the arrangements could lead to the UK being trapped indefinitely in a customs union, scuppering future trade deals with markets around the world.
And the DUP strongly rejects any measure which could lead to divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, effectively creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
MPs voted last week to say they would only back Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement if the backstop was replaced by ‘alternative arrangements’.
In her speech, Mrs May will say she will find a solution ‘that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland’ and ‘secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament, which is the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland’.
And she will call for ‘steps to move towards the restoration of devolution’ so that Northern Ireland’s politicians ‘can get back to work on the issues that matter to the people they represent’.
Mrs May will say: ‘The measure of this moment in Northern Ireland’s history must be more than whether we avoid a return to the challenges of the past.
‘It must be how, together, we move forwards to shape the opportunities of the future.’
Senior European Union figures have strongly rejected calls for the Withdrawal Agreement to be rewritten to remove the backstop.
Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the deal agreed by Mrs May and the leaders of the 27 other EU members ‘cannot be reopened’.
He said the EU was ‘ready to work on alternative solutions during transition’, restating Brussels’ position that the backstop had to remain in place unless and until a replacement could be agreed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was ready to listen to proposals to solve the border ‘riddle’, but needs to hear from Britain how it thinks it can be done.
Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney said alternatives to the backstop were ‘wishful thinking’.
He said: ‘The Irish protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement already allows for alternative arrangements or alternative solutions to the backstop and if they’re there they can replace the backstop.
‘The problem is that none of those ideas around alternative arrangements stand up to scrutiny, we have certainly not seen any that have.’