THERESA May is set to chair a meeting with her inner Cabinet of senior ministers today after Michel Barnier said a Brexit deal was “within reach” – but only if the whole of the UK stayed in the customs union to avoid a hard Irish border.
The EU chief negotiator’s suggestion prompted Brexiteers to go on the attack.
Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, said: “This is an important moment. Clearly No10 are negotiating a backstop that makes the UK a permanent EU colony. We cannot escape EU laws & ECJ until they allow us to – which they may never do. That’s not what the biggest majority in our history voted for.”
Talk of a draft deal having been agreed in Brussels on the Irish backstop was rubbished by Whitehall insiders, who urged caution.
Among those due to attend this afternoon’s emergency Brexit Cabinet are: the Prime Minister’s effective deputy David Lidington; Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary; Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary; Greg Clark, the Business Secretary; Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, and Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.
It will follow another Whitehall meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee, which will be attended by Mr Lidington and his colleagues Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, and David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary. Michael Russell will be there representing the Scottish Government and is expected to once again sound the alarm about the damage to Scotland’s economy a hard or no-deal Brexit would do.
Last night, it was suggested a group of up to 30 Tory Remainers were considering forming a rival campaign to fight Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group of Eurosceptics with the aim of voting down Mrs May’s Brexit deal because of fears it would wreck the economy.
In the Belgian capital, Mr Barnier, speaking to a business audience, set out the EU’s Irish border proposal:
*customs and VAT checks would be carried out using existing customs transit procedures to avoid the need for physical inspections at the border;
*companies in the rest of the UK sending goods to Northern Ireland would fill out customs declarations online in advance;
*the only visible systematic checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would involve scanning bar codes on lorries and containers, which could be done on ferries and at transit ports -similar arrangements already exist between mainland Spain and the Canary Islands;
*regulatory checks on industrial goods would be carried out by market surveillance authorities “directly in the market or at the premises of companies in Northern Ireland”;
*health and sanitary checks on live animals and animal products “must happen at the border because of food safety and animal health reasons” but these already take place and rather than covering 10 per cent of live animals as at present, they would have to cover 100 per cent.
The EU chief negotiator accepted new administrative procedures for goods travelling between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain would be “politically sensitive” but he noted: “Brexit was not our choice; it is the choice of the UK.”
He warned the UK’s trade proposals would give its companies a “huge competitive edge” over EU rivals.
Mr Barnier claimed Brussels’s proposal helped manage the negative fall-out from Brexit, which respected the territorial integrity of the UK, and gave Northern Ireland benefits “no part of a third country enjoys; in particular, continued access to the single market for goods and continued benefits from EU free trade agreements”.
He added: “Agreement is within reach if we have the negotiations on October 17 at the next council meeting. That is why we are interested in maximising an orderly withdrawal and minimising the cost of withdrawal.”
At Westminster, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists threatened to vote down the Autumn Budget if Mrs May breached its “blood red line” on the Irish backstop.
One party source said: “If Theresa May doesn’t take our concerns on board, we will take the view that she is not the leader to take us through to a safe Brexit.”
Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, noting how the PM was also a Unionist, said: “What is important for us is to say to her very clearly that any impediment on the two-way access in the UK single market would not be good for the Union or the economy of Northern Ireland.”
If the DUP were to vote down the Budget, No 10 made clear Mrs May would not quit.
However, it would likely lead to Labour tabling a no-confidence motion in the Tory Government. The likelihood is the prospect of a snap general election would concentrate MPs’ minds, meaning the PM would probably win the vote and struggle on; badly damaged.
The DUP’s threat to vote down the Budget came as a Downing Street source was asked if Mrs May felt she could rely on the votes of Mrs Foster and her parliamentary colleagues.
“The confidence and supply arrangement we have with the DUP is a matter of record,” declared the source. Asked if this was a yes, he replied: “It’s an answer.”
Earlier at PMQs, Mrs May told MPs from all parties that when it came to the Brexit vote, they should “put the national interest first”.
Ken Clarke, the veteran Europhile, urged her to bring forward a deal acceptable to pro-EU MPs on both sides of the Commons, saying this would expose how the “hardline Eurosceptic views” of Labour’s “Bennite” leadership and the “right-wing Nationalists” on the Tory benches were in the minority in the Commons.
Source : HeraldScotland