PM fights to push Irish border concessions past her cabinet and DUP

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Theresa May faces a crunch point on Brexit today as she fights to get a divorce deal past her Cabinet and the DUP.

The Prime Minister is under massive pressure as she scrambles to thrash out a package that can be accepted on both sides of the Channel.

But Mrs May’s position is hanging by a thread after the DUP threatened to tear up the deal which sees its 10 MPs prop her up in power.

They are livid that a so-called ‘backstop’ proposal for the Irish border could see single market checks imposed between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain – something they say would split the UK.

Meanwhile, Brexiteers have accused the PM of being ‘stitched up’ by the EU as the plan would effectively keep the whole UK in the customs union until a future trade deal is agreed.

They demanded Mrs May tear up the backstop and seek a looser Canada-style free trade arrangement, encouraged by EU negotiator Michel Barnier again bluntly dismissing her Chequers blueprint.

The wave of outrage has left Mrs May facing probably the biggest test of her premiership, with just six days to go until a crucial EU summit.

Theresa May (pictured at an event to mark the anniversary of the government’s race audit today) is facing probably the biggest test of her premiership, with just six days to go until a crucial EU summit

She is gathering her most senior ministers in Downing Street tonight in a bid to shore up her support.   

She is expected to ask the ‘war Cabinet’ – whose key members include Chancellor Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove – to get behind her fledgling divorce deal with the EU.

No formal decision is set to be made, with the discussion intended to pave the way for the issue to be put to full Cabinet next Tuesday. 

What would Theresa May’s backstop deal mean? 

The PM’s backstop proposal is designed to ensure there is no hard Irish border.

It would see the whole of the UK stay in the customs union ‘temporarily’ until a wider trade deal is struck.

Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the single market to avoid regulatory checks on the border with the Republic.

The government’s previous plan said that it wanted the UK to stay in the customs union until 2021 ‘at the latest’.

But it is not clear whether the UK would be subject to rules that stop countries striking their own trade deals outside the bloc.

It also remains to be seen whether free movement rules would still apply in Northern Ireland. The Common Travel Area already protects movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic.  

The blueprint would reduce friction on the Irish border but lead to greater checks across the Irish Sea.

These would include health and sanitary inspections for animals and animal products.

The backstop is designed to fall away when a wider trade pact is agreed – which Mrs May says should be based on her Chequers plan for a ‘combined customs territory’ with the EU.

Some ministers are angry at being left out of the key meeting tonight. One source told MailOnline they had been publicly supportive of Mrs May in spite of the PM’s woes and were asking themselves :’What’s the point?’

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey – who is not attending this evening and has been the subject of persistent resignation rumours – repeatedly refused to endorse Mrs May’s Chequers plan.

‘I am completely supportive of the PM,’ she told the BBC. ‘I am fully 100 per cent behind the PM and we will get the best deal for this country.’

The PM’s spokesman said: ‘There have been a series of meetings in recent weeks where ministers have just received updates on the state of the negotiations.

‘They are a relatively regular thing.’

He said there were ‘big issues still to resolve’ in the exit talks.

‘That was the case on Monday and that remains the case today,’ he added. 

British and EU negotiators are thought to have agreed in principle to an all-UK backstop plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, removing the last major obstacle to agreeing a text.

It would involve the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU while negotiations take place over a free trade deal, which could take years. 

Mainland Britain would leave the single market, regaining the ability to set its own regulations.

But Northern Ireland would stay in the single market for goods, according to the Daily Telegraph, meaning there would be increased regulatory checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

In a show of strength last night, the DUP’s MPs abstained on a Commons vote on the Agriculture Bill – a key piece of Brexit legislation they are committed to support. 

The vote was won comfortably by the Government, but a wider strike by the DUP would put Mrs May’s legislative programme in peril.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, pictured on a visit to Brussels yesterday, has warned that her line against anything that would risk splitting the UK is 'blood red'

DUP leader Arlene Foster, pictured on a visit to Brussels yesterday, has warned that her line against anything that would risk splitting the UK is ‘blood red’

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab

Trade Secretary Liam Fox

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (left in the Commons this week) and Trade Secretary Liam Fox (right in Downing Street) are also attending the meeting to discuss Brexit later

Mrs May (pictured at an event marking the anniversary of the government's race audit today) is struggling to thrash out a Brexit deal acceptable on both sides of the Channel 

Mrs May (pictured at an event marking the anniversary of the government’s race audit today) is struggling to thrash out a Brexit deal acceptable on both sides of the Channel 

Sources said they were ready to torpedo the Budget and even back a no confidence vote if the PM does not respect their red lines.

Former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith has warned Theresa May to ‘listen very carefully’ to the DUP’s warnings. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘They are a separate party, they must make their own decisions. ‘But, I do think the Government does need to listen very carefully.’ 

The £1billion deal with the DUP keeping Theresa May in power  

The DUP’s MPs are keeping the Conservatives in power thanks to a deal last year to spend an extra £1billion on Northern Ireland. 

Theresa May’s failed election gamble left the Conservatives without a majority in the House of Commons.

But with the DUP and its 10 MPs agreeing to support the Tories Mrs May can command a narrow majority. 

The deal announced last June was immediately branded a ‘bung’. 

It also included new flexibility over £500million of previously allocated cash.  

Labour said the deal could eventually be worth as much as £2billion, which would normally imply £59billion of extra spending in England, £6billion in Scotland and £3billion in Wales.

The agreement guaranteed the DUP would vote with the Tories on the Queen’s Speech, the Budget, and legislation relating to Brexit and national security. 

The Brexiteer added: ‘A lot of us are concerned that in the hunt, in the chase for some kind of settlement what we’ll end up doing is accommodating this ludicrous Irish backstop, which doesn’t and shouldn’t exist.’ 

Mr Duncan Smith said it was ‘wholly feasible to have non-hard borders’ in Northern Ireland. 

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also slammed the backstop, reigniting his row with Mrs May by saying the deal would make Britain a ‘permanent EU colony’.

Mr Johnson, who supports a ‘Canada plus’ or ‘SuperCanada’ deal, said: ‘In the referendum both sides said Leave meant leaving the customs union and single market.

‘Yet this backstop inevitably means Chequers, staying in both, no say in either, and no right to escape.’  

The DUP’s MPs prop up the Government through a formal ‘confidence and supply’ deal that obliges them to vote for the Budget, the Queen’s Speech and Brexit legislation.

But the senior party source said: ‘They are playing with fire on this regulatory stuff. It is unacceptable that we would be treated differently to the rest of the UK. If Theresa May doesn’t take our concerns on board, she may not be the leader to take us through Brexit. Say they somehow squeak this (Chequers) vote with the help of 40 Labour MPs, but have 30 Tories and us voting against it? What then? How do they expect to govern?

‘And before that they’ve got a Budget to get through – we won’t be voting for that if they try to bounce us.’

Downing Street brushed aside the threat, suggesting Mrs May would fight on even if parts of the Budget were voted down later this month. One source suggested the DUP could even lose the £1billion in extra funding secured for Northern Ireland if they abandoned its pact with the Tories. 

Even if Mrs May can secure an agreement with the EU and win over the DUP, it is far from certain that she will be able to get it past Parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn says he would oppose arrangements that do not keep the UK more closely tied to Brussels – although there are claims that dozens of Labour MPs could defy him.

At a Q&A in London today, Tony Blair insisted politicians should 'hold firm' and not be afraid of putting the country on course for a chaotic no-deal

At a Q&A in London today, Tony Blair insisted politicians should ‘hold firm’ and not be afraid of putting the country on course for a chaotic no-deal

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey (pictured) - who is not attending this evening and has been the subject of persistent resignation rumours - avoided saying she backed Mrs May's Chequers plan today

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey (pictured) – who is not attending this evening and has been the subject of persistent resignation rumours – avoided saying she backed Mrs May’s Chequers plan today

A band of more than 30 Remain-supporting Tory MPs are forming a movement to bring about a second referendum.

Organisers say the group will vote down whatever Brexit deal Theresa May secures from the European Union.

But the ultimate goal will be to hold another referendum on Brexit.

The group is a rival for the Brexit-backing European Research Group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Those involved have not yet agreed a name, but one joked it could be the ‘Patriots’ – to rile members of the Eurosceptic group.

Meanwhile, former PM Sir John Major said the treatment Mrs May was receiving at the hands of some in her party was worse than he had suffered when he called some in his party ‘b***ards’.

He told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast: ‘I have great sympathy for her plight and I think the way she is being treated by some of her colleagues is absolutely outrageous.’

John Major says PM’s backbench ‘b***ards’ are worse than his 

Sir John Major has said Theresa May is receiving worse treatment from her backbenchers than he did.

The former PM famously branded some in his party ‘b***ards’ for rebelling over the Maastricht Treaty.

He told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast: ‘I have great sympathy for her plight and I think the way she is being treated by some of her colleagues is absolutely outrageous.’

Sir John said he supported Mrs May as Prime Minister but disagreed with her approach to Europe.

He said: ‘People in Parliament who are undermining the Prime Minister by wandering round saying we are going to have 40-odd signatures for a leadership election tomorrow, saying unless the Prime Minister does this thing or that thing we are going to vote against it, that’s an intolerable way to treat a Prime Minister who is in the middle of negotiations.’

He attacked the ‘bullying’ of the PM by some in the party.

Asked about the ‘b***ards’ from his era, he replied: ‘Their behaviour was pretty intolerable, but not nearly as intolerable as the way the present Prime Minister is being treated.’

Sir John said he supported Mrs May as Prime Minister but disagreed with some of her approach to Europe.

He said: ‘People in Parliament who are undermining the Prime Minister by wandering round saying we are going to have 40-odd signatures for a leadership election tomorrow, saying unless the Prime Minister does this thing or that thing we are going to vote against it, that’s an intolerable way to treat a Prime Minister who is in the middle of negotiations.’

He attacked the ‘bullying’ of the PM by some in the party.

Asked about the ‘b***ards’ from his era, he replied: ‘Their behaviour was pretty intolerable, but not nearly as intolerable as the way the present Prime Minister is being treated.’

Tony Blair underlined the growing Remainer campaign to stop Brexit altogether today as he urged MPs to vote down any  deal Mrs May secures.

The former PM insisted politicians should ‘hold firm’ and not be afraid of putting the country on course for a chaotic no-deal.

A ‘blockage’ in Parliament was the best chance of getting a referendum that could keep the UK in the EU, he said. He claimed the bloc would at that point make a ‘much more attractive offer’ to keep Britain in. 

The Labour leadership has said it will oppose any deal that does not keep the UK tied closely to the EU.

There are also claims that around 30 Tory MPs are ready to rebel in an effort to force another national vote on the issue. 

But the government intends to leave MPs with a stark choice between any agreement Mrs May reaches and crashing out.

There has been speculation that dozens of moderate MPs could end up backing the government to avoid carnage.  

Speaking at a Reuters Q&A this morning, the former Labour leader was asked how he thought the MPs should handle a vote.

He said: ‘I would advise them to hold firm against Brexit. Either of these choices are unpalatable.’

Mr Blair repeated his call for a referendum that would include a choice to drop Brexit altogether.

‘If we do get a blockage in Parliament that is when you get the opportunity to go back to the people,’ he said.

Mr Blair said if there was a second referendum he believed the EU would ‘make a much more attractive offer’. 

Speaking during a visit to Bristol today, Mr Corbyn sought to capitalise on Mrs May’s woes.

‘I think it’s a very real threat and the DUP are obviously speaking up for their own constituency on this,’ said Mr Corbyn.

‘Indeed there is a great deal of unity across all political parties in Northern Ireland, across all political divides, on having an open border with the Republic, obviously open trade and therefore a customs union within the European Union that reflects that.

‘I think the position is very real. We will judge this Government against the six tests that Keir Starmer has laid out for us and we will vote accordingly in Parliament but we cannot support Chequers.’

Mr Corbyn added: ‘The Government has had more than two years to negotiate this and still hasn’t made any progress on it. Quite simply, there has to be open trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and that has to be the basis of any agreement.’

How does Theresa May’s Chequers deal compare with a Canada-style free trade deal?

CHEQUERS

Trade:

Britain would stick to EU rules on goods by adopting a ‘Common rulebook’ with Brussels, but not in the services sector.

Theresa May says this would allow the UK to strike free trade deals globally, but the scope would be limited by commitments to the EU.

The blueprint should minimise the need for extra checks at the borders – protecting the ‘just in time’ systems used by the car industry to import and export parts.

The UK Parliament could choose to diverge from these EU rules over time.

But there is an admission that this would ‘have consequences’.

Customs:

Britain would set up something called a ‘facilitated customs arrangement’.

This would see the UK effectively act as the EU’s taxman – using British officials to collect customs which would then be paid on to the bloc. 

The borders between the UK and EU will be treated as a ‘combined customs territory’.

The UK would apply domestic tariffs and trade policies for goods intended for the UK, but charge EU tariffs and their equivalents for goods which will end up heading into the EU.

Northern Ireland: 

Mrs May says her plan will prevent a hard Irish border, and mean no divergence between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

There would be no need for extra border checks, as tariffs on goods would be the same.

Single market origin rules and regulations would also be sufficiently aligned to avoid infrastructure.

 CANADA-STYLE

Trade: 

Britain would strike a Canada-style trade deal with the EU, meaning goods flow both ways without tariffs.

As it is a simple free trade deal, Britain would not be bound by most of the rules and red tape drawn up in Brussels.

The arrangement would be a relatively clean break from the EU – but would fall far short of full access to the single market.

Eurosceptics have suggested ‘Canada plus’ in key areas such as services and mutual recognition of standards.

The UK would have broad scope to strike free trade deals around the world.

Customs:

Technology would be used to avoid extra customs checks on the borders.

As a result goods travelling into the UK from the EU and vice versa would be tracked and customs paid without extra checks.

The EU has suggested this is ‘magical thinking’. 

Northern Ireland:

The EU says the Canada model would mean border controls are required between Northern Ireland and the Republic to protect the single market and customs union.

It insists Northern Ireland must stay in the bloc’s customs jurisdiction in order to prevent that.

Mrs May has signalled she agrees with the analysis – seemingly the reason she is reluctant to go down this route.

But Brexiteers point out that there is already a tax border between the UK and Ireland, and say technology and trusted trader schemes can avoid the need for more infrastructure. 

 

 

 

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