Brexit: Theresa May invites ministers to read draft deal ahead of crunch cabinet meeting

The draft will not include Ms May's final plan to address the highly contentious issue of the Irish border, which will be dealt with next week

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 07 November 2018 16:52
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Theresa May has invited ministers in to start reading the text of a proposed Brexit agreement ahead of a crunch cabinet meeting.

Members of her top team will have the chance to view the almost complete draft withdrawal agreement, but it will not include the crucial section on how Ms May will address the highly contentious issue of the Irish border.

The prime minister is likely to focus on this final element at a critical cabinet get-together, which is likely to be held next week, as she pushes to get the Brexit deal locked in.

The Independent reported on Tuesday that the cabinet is edging towards an agreed position on the withdrawal deal, with Downing Street confident that if the final issue holding it – the so-called Irish backstop – can be solved, then a deal including outline future trading relations could be sealed with the EU and voted on by MPs before the Christmas break.

One cabinet source said: “They’ve been offered the chance to go in and read it. But it won’t include the backstop.”

The individual said a date is yet to be confirmed for the showdown cabinet meeting at which Ms May will seek broad agreement on all aspects of the withdrawal deal, but added that ministers were primed for something to take place next week.

Significant differences still exist over how the UK should approach the issue of the Irish border, with ministers including Michael Gove said to have demanded to see legal advice given to the government on how to deal with the issue.

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday attorney general Geoffrey Cox made the case for backing the prime minister’s strategy and argued that the favoured approach by Brexiteers was legally difficult.

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But pressure for the full legal advice to be released has mounted with the Ms May’s DUP partners in government also indicating they would like it released.

The Northern Irish party, whose 10 MPs prop up the prime minister’s administration in the Commons, said it was “in the public interest” for the legal advice to be disclosed.

For Labour, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said it was “essential” that MPs should be able to see the advice drawn up by Mr Cox.

The prime minister told MPs last month that 95 per cent of the deal had been agreed, although the key sticking point of the backstop to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remained unresolved.

A Downing Street source said: “That is just where we are so far. It does not imply that a deal has been done.”

Negotiators have been deadlocked over what happens to the Irish border if a new trading relationship has not yet been agreed by the UK and EU by the end of the transition period in December 2020.

Under these circumstances Brussels’ position has been that Northern Ireland at least should remain in the EU’s customs union until a trade deal is set in stone, in order to keep the border with the republic open, but Ms May says she wants a solution where the whole UK remains in a customs arrangement but for a time-limited period.

Brexiteers have said they would only accept such a backstop arrangement if the UK can pull out of it unilaterally, something the EU has said it will not accept.

At Tuesday’s cabinet meeting Mr Cox set out the several key legal difficulties of the UK pulling out unilaterally, while also seeking to reassure Brexiteers that a “review mechanism” backed by Ms May – that would allow the backstop to be terminated with the mutual agreement of the EU – would not be the same as giving Brussels an effective veto on Britain leaving the backstop.

The Independent understands Downing Street believes that if the cabinet can agree a position, a withdrawal agreement could be agreed with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, and then in a period before an EU summit is held to sign it off, the outstanding parts of the outline future trading relationship could also be fleshed out.

The goal would then be for a European Council summit to approve the lot, passing the baton to MPs in the UK to vote on it in parliament before 20 December when the Commons rises.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar told Ms May on Monday that he was ready to consider a review mechanism as part of a backstop arrangement to keep the border with Northern Ireland open after Brexit, but with the detailed UK proposals yet to be put to Brussels, EU negotiators say there is still a “real point of divergence” on the Irish issue to be overcome.

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