Boris Johnson was last night on the brink of signing a trade agreement with the European Union – with just days to spare before Britain severs ties with the bloc.
One senior EU diplomat described an accord as “imminent”, while another official told The Independent: “We are in the end phase now.”
EU member states have also been told by the European Commission that they may be summoned to a meeting on Thursday to approve an accord.
The mood in Brussels and London shifted further towards an agreement on Wednesday afternoon, following news that both sides had reached compromises on a number of the remaining issues. Mr Johnson called a virtual meeting of cabinet members late in the evening to discuss the situation.
Officials on both sides were unclear whether an accord would be finalised later in the night or early the next day. But a French source boasted that the British had made “huge concessions” in areas like fishing that cleared the way to an agreement.
It comes after chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said he had done all he could to resolve fishing as an issue and handed the final phase over to Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson to negotiate directly.
The pair have been talking on the telephone in recent days to settle the remaining topics.
The key principles of the so-called “level playing field” on regulations are understood to have been largely put to bed, though as of Wednesday morning some side questions remained on issues like electric car imports and portfolio management regulations.
The two sides have been slower to come to an agreement on access for European fleets, after the UK and EU rejected each others’ final offers at chief negotiator level. But Mr Johnson and Ms Von der Leyen are understood to have made progress on the issue in one-to-one talks.
As news of a deal emerged on Wednesday night, hardline Brexiteers signalled that they are ready to cry betrayal over any treaty which they feel sells out the UK’s sovereignty or the interests of its fishing industry.
Amid reports of the “big concessions”, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said: "It sounds like the British team have dropped the ball before the line. No wonder they want a Christmas Eve announcement to hide the fisheries sell-out.”
And the Tory backbench European Research Group said it would on Thursday reconvene its “star chamber” of legal experts chaired by veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash to scrutinise the text “to ensure that its provisions genuinely protect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom”.
In a signal that Mr Johnson’s MPs are not ready simply to rubber-stamp any treaty put before them next week, ERG chair Mark Francois and vice-chair David Jones said the star chamber would “undertake its examination as expeditiously as possible, before providing its conclusions on the merits of the deal – which we will aim to make public before parliament reconvenes.”
EU lawyers have said Christmas is the hard deadline for getting an agreement provisionally approved before the end of the year and avoiding a no-deal hitting on 1 January.
Though the provisional process is quicker than a formal vote in the European parliament, which is no longer possible within the timeframe, it would still take around a week to finalise.
Mr Barnier has said there could be a short period of no deal even if an agreement is signed, if it is not applied provisionally in time for 1 January, when the UK leaves the single market and customs union.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is expected to recall both Houses of Parliament on 30 December to rush legislation onto the statute book in a single day.
Although Sir Keir Starmer has yet to confirm whether his party will back the deal, the PM is all but assured of securing parliamentary approval as few Labour MPs will vote against when the alternative is a no-deal crash-out.