Has Theresa May secured a breakthrough to seal a Brexit deal?


Theresa May is said to have made a breakthrough on Brexit talks that could see her put forward a deal to her Cabinet as early as Tuesday.

The Prime Minister was reported last night to have secured private concessions from Brussels that would keep the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU.

Her plan would avoid the need for a hard Irish during a transition to a final trade deal, the issue which has been the sticking point in negotiations for months.

Mrs May also hopes to produce a detailed outline on the final settlement with the EU signalling a Canada-style deal remains a long-term possibility.

Downing Street hopes to convince Brussels to convene an emergency summit within days to seal the divorce before the end of the month – and then persuade MPs to back it.  

Theresa May (pictured leaving for Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday) is said to have secured private concessions from Brussels to keep the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU

Theresa May (pictured leaving for Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday) is said to have secured private concessions from Brussels to keep the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU

According to the claims today: 

  • Theresa May has received private agreement the backstop plan in the divorce deal will be a UK-wide customs union and not just for Northern Ireland. This is supposed to avoid a hard border and unlock the negotiations at the 11th hour
  • The divorce deal will include an exit clause so the customs union does not last forever  
  • There will be a long and detailed political agreement with the the EU on the final trade deal that leaves open a Canada-style deal instead of May’s Chequers plan
  • The PM will warn Brexiteers if they reject this version of the deal the fall out from no deal will be their fault

However, even if agreed to by Europe’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, it may not get through the House of Commons, as it would anger hard Brexit-supporting MPs.

What is the final issue in the Brexit talks?

Theresa May insists the Brexit deal is 95 per cent done – but that the final issue of the Irish border backstop may be the hardest part.

The backstop is about what will happen to the Irish border if the Brexit transition ends before a final UK-EU trade deal is in place.

Transition is currently due to end in December 2020.  

The EU is still insisting that in the absence of a full trade deal, Northern Ireland should stay in the EU customs union while the rest of the UK leaves to ensure the Irish border remains open.

Britain says the whole UK should stay in customs rules for a temporary period so there is no border in the Irish Sea. 

The EU says it is not opposed to this in principle but had said there was no time this autumn.

Brussels now appears to be prepared to do a UK-wide backstop in the divorce deal – but it is not clear whether this will convince it to drop its own backstop.

They believe it would prevent Britain securing new free trade deals with other countries, and would break the Conservatives’ manifesto promise to leave the customs union.

Last night prominent Brexiteer MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It would be a major breach of faith.

‘I am assuming the Government will stick to its manifesto commitment to leaving the customs union when we leave the EU.’

Tory backbencher Mark Pritchard wrote on Twitter that the proposed deal would amount to ‘not delivering Brexit’ and warned: ‘Severe punishment at General Election if this goes ahead. Appears any old deal now better than no deal.’

It was claimed that the EU had last week agreed a major concession to unlock a Brexit deal, by accepting that checks on goods could take place in factories and shops rather than at the border.

An all-UK customs deal could be written into the withdrawal agreement, avoiding the need for a ‘backstop’ for Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times said today.

It is not clear whether Brussels has agreed to drop the Northern Ireland-only backstop, something which Mrs May insists she will never sign up and which would not be agreed by MPs. 

The Prime Minister (pictured here with Philip Hammond) will still have to get her plan through the House of Commons 

The Prime Minister (pictured here with Philip Hammond) will still have to get her plan through the House of Commons 

In a bid to ensure MPs back it, Mrs May’s proposal would include an ‘exit clause’ to avoid suspicion that Britain will forever be tied to EU rules, allowing the Government to forge a future free trade deal like that enjoyed by Canada. 

A Whitehall source warned the paper this remained the central issue because the EU is likely to insist any exit clause still contains the Northern Ireland-only backstop.

They said: ‘The PM will be able to say there’s no more backstop, we’ve got rid of that success.

‘It is UK-wide success. There’s an exit mechanism success. And you’ve got Canada. The small print is that Ireland is f*****.’

The Prime Minister is said to be preparing to sell the plan to Brexiteers in the Cabinet by insisting the customs arrangement will not be permanent, and that the alternative is a potentially disastrous ‘no-deal’ exit from the bloc in March.

EU law expert Professor Steve Peers told this newspaper: ‘I think there became an increased chance of a deal once the EU apparently agreed to a UK-wide customs union with the EU in the withdrawal agreement.’

He said that an all-UK customs union would not breach the EU’s red lines.

But he added that there may still be some aspects surrounding Northern Ireland that may be opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party, whose votes in the Commons are vital to Mrs May, as well as angering Brexiteers.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis told a Sunday newspaper that the Prime Minister must publish legal advice on any deal so that Ministers and MPs understand its implications before they are asked to vote on it, in order to avoid the ‘mess’ that Tony Blair’s government got into over the legality of the Iraq war.

Last night Downing Street sought to play down expectation that a customs union deal was close to being agreed.

A spokesman insisted: ‘Nothing has been agreed.’