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Boris Johnson risks Brexiteer fury with customs union hint, after EU gives green light to secret negotiations

Donald Tusk concedes there are ‘promising signals’ on reaching a deal

Adam Forrest,Samuel Osborne,Jane Dalton
Friday 11 October 2019 19:00
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Michel Barnier says Brexit 'like climbing a mountain' as positive deal talks continue

Brexit negotiations will now enter the “tunnel” phase of intensive and secretive talks in a boost for Boris Johnson’s prospects of brokering a fresh deal.

Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, held what he called a “constructive” meeting with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, raising hopes of a breakthrough on a withdrawal deal.

As the EU27 ambassadors approved talks moving into the “tunnel” phase, EU Council president Donald Tusk said the UK had still not delivered anything workable, but conceded there were “promising signals”.

Mr Johnson hinted at a major concession to rescue a deal by refusing to rule out Northern Ireland staying in the EU’s customs union.

It came as details of private Tory polling emerged showing Mr Johnson cannot get a Commons majority unless he delivers Brexit by 31 October.

Many MPs believe that, if he cannot get a deal, Mr Johnson will use an emergency Saturday sitting of Parliament on October 19 to push for a “people versus Parliament” general election as early as next month.

But if a deal is forthcoming he would need the backing of the DUP and hardline Brexit-backing Tories to give it any chance of getting it through without opposition support.

See below for what was our live coverage.

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Good morning and welcome to The Independent's live coverage of events at Westminster, Brussels and beyond.

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 08:29
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Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay is holding key talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Friday as the chance of a breakthrough on securing a withdrawal deal appeared to rise.

The Brussels meeting comes in the wake of discussions between Boris Johnson and Irish Leo Varadkar after which both leaders declared they could “see a pathway” to a possible agreement.

Could it lead to the start of so-called intensive “tunnel” negotiations in the coming days?

Our political editor has all the details.

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 08:29
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Education secretary Gavin Williamson has been asked about what Boris Johnson and Leo Vardkar discussed yesterday, and whether the British side had offered concessions.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether there was a possibility of a deal, Williamson said: “I think that what we saw yesterday is that pathway start to emerge where we can get a deal that works for both the UK and the EU, yes.”

Pressed repeatedly on whether the cabinet had been briefed on the prime minister’s discussions with the Irish premier, he eventually replied: “I had a very nice briefing this morning – it was very much appreciated.”

“The prime minister has always been consistent that he wants to get a deal, but not at any cost. But what he’s been absolutely determined to do is to ensure exit on 31 October.”

Asked whether there had been an offer on customs proposals to solve the Brexit impasse, Williamson said: “It doesn’t benefit anyone to have a running commentary on live negotiations.

“These are confidential negotiations, and the only way you are going to see an agreement emerge is by ensuring people have space to carry on those negotiation.”

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 08:33
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So what did Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar discuss, exactly? The Irish Times suggests there has been some movement from the British side, with the Irish side apparently given some encouragement that customs checks could be moved away from the north-south border to the Irish Sea.

But of course, it wouldn’t be the first time suggestions made by Johnson were “over-interpreted”. 

While the Irish Times’ political editor Pat Leahy talked up “significant movement” from British side, others have suggested No 10 thinks little has changed –  and no concession has been offered on customs.

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 08:41
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Could it be Boris Johnson’s apparent desperation for a deal may have something to do with election polling?

According to The Telegraph, the Tories have seen a ComRes study showing Johnson cannot get a majority unless Brexit happens by 31 October.

Leaving with a deal by the end of this month would give him a whopping majority of 118 after an election, the pollster predicts.

Leaving after 31 October – with or without a deal – would leave him more than a dozen MPs short of a majority.

It seems the British people may actually have taken all his “get Brexit done” and “do or die” rhetoric seriously.

The flipside for opposition leaders is that they have a strong incentive to make sure Brexit happens after 31 October.

Andrew Hawkins, chairman of Comres, told a deal by Halloween is “the doomsday scenario as far as the Opposition are concerned, and it would appear that they are aware of the maths.”

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 08:47
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Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay has arrived for talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier. They’re expected to talk for around two hours.

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 08:49
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Robert Peston says there’s a “striking degree of optimism” around this morning ... yet both sides are claiming the other has offered a concession.

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 08:57
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Tory MP Nigel Evans said members of the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) could vote for concessions on Northern Ireland, so long as the DUP was in favour.

“I think it is very difficult to get it through without the DUP, but we have seen a shift from the DUP already,” he said. “And if the DUP are in favour of it, it’d be very difficult for the ERG to go against.”

Evans said the ERG had not been briefed on the exchanges between Boris Johnson and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar.

He would not rule out backing a deal even if it involved a customs border down the Irish Sea – something the DUP has made clear it would be unhappy with.

“We’re going to look at the detail - none of us know,” he said. “I believe it is three dimensional poker and we’re playing very high risk stakes here.”

Wait a minute. Isn’t three dimensional poker simply … poker?

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 09:22
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Remarks made by the Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith on the idea of Brexit veto are causing a bit of a stir.

“What I’m committing to is that we are not going to have one party having a veto over any element of this situation,” Smith told BBC Northern Ireland.

The Leave.EU group said on Twitter that it seemed like Boris Johnson had “blinked” in conceding that the DUP wouldn’t get a veto on the border arrangements established under any Brexit agreement.

But according to the BBC’s Iain Watson, No 10 sources have suggested Julian Smith hadn’t been briefed on the detail of the Johnson-Varadkar discussions when he suggested the veto wouldn’t be down to the DUP.

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 09:31
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The guessing game continues. Even the photos offer contradictory clues.

Adam Forrest11 October 2019 09:39

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