No-deal Brexit came a step closer today as Theresa May all-but gave up hope that an agreement can be reached with the EU imminently.
The Prime Minister had been hoping to reach a settlement by Wednesday – the deadline for calling a Brussels summit this month.
But despite negotiating teams working until 2.45am this morning, Michel Barnier has briefed foreign ministers that the two sides are still wrangling over the Irish border ‘backstop’.
Downing Street sources said people should not ‘get their hopes up’ of a package being settled in time for the deadline. The next summit is not expected to happen until mid-December – making it almost impossible to get a deal through Parliament before Christmas.
Mrs May now faces mounting pressure to activate large scale no-deal plans, amid warnings that otherwise the country will not be prepared to crash out in March.
The walls appear to be closing in on the PM, with both wings of the Tory party launching furious attacks on her Brexit approach.
No10 is on high alert for more resignations by Eurosceptics or Remainers, in the wake of the dramatic departure by Boris Johnson’s pro-EU brother Jo last week.
In his latest salvo at her blueprint today, former foreign secretary Boris warned that the PM’s plans would keep the UK ‘in captivity’ and urged a Cabinet ‘mutiny’.
Meanwhile, Labour has descended into fresh infighting after shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer insisted the process of leaving the EU ‘can be stopped’ – despite Jeremy Corbyn saying exactly the opposite last week.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured in Brussels today) briefed foreign ministers that the two sides were still well short of an agreement – suggesting a summit this month is now a distant possibility
Theresa May (pictured returning to Downing Street this morning) is struggling to keep Brexit talks alive amid a backlash from the EU, Remainers and Brexiteers
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom (pictured left in Downing Street last week) warned yesterday that the UK ‘cannot be held against its will in a customs arrangement’. Boris Johnson (right) warned that Britain is on the verge of ‘total surrender’ to Brussels
The situation is threatening to spiral out of control with just over four months to go until the UK is due to leave the EU.
Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt, a Brexiteer, delivered a thinly-veiled warning to Mrs May today by vowing the Cabinet would act as a ‘check’ on her plans.
‘The important thing is that there are two checks on this deal – there is Cabinet and there is Parliament,’ she told Sky News.
‘Cabinet’s job is to put something to Parliament that is going to deliver on the referendum result.’
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom fueled fears about a meltdown yesterday by insisting the UK must not be ‘trapped’ in an Irish border ‘backstop’ agreement.
Why hasn’t a Brexit divorce deal been agreed yet?
The Brexit divorce negotiations have boiled down to the issue of the Irish border.
Brussels had initially demanded that Northern Ireland stays within its jurisdiction for customs and most single market rules to avoid a hard border.
But Mrs May flatly rejected the idea, saying she would not agree to anything that risked splitting the UK. Instead, the government has mooted a temporary customs union for the whole UK, and accepted the need for extra regulatory checks in the Irish Sea.
Brussels has also given ground, and now appears to be prepared to sign off a UK-wide backstop in the divorce deal.
That leaves the mechanism for ending the backstop as the final hurdle to overcome – but the two sides have different views.
These are the options on the table:
Dominic Raab has been arguing that the UK should be able to scrap the backstop arrangements by giving three to six months’ notice.
That would assuage Eurosceptic fears that the country could end up being trapped in an inferior customs union indefinitely, unless the EU gives permission for it to stop or a wider trade deal is sealed.
For its part, the EU has been adamant that the backstop must offer an ‘all-weather’ solution to the Irish border issue and stay in place ‘unless and until’ it is superseded by other arrangements.
The bloc has already effectively killed off calls for a hard end date to the backstop – and No10 is now convinced that a simple unilateral notice period will not unlock the talks.
Mrs May and Irish PM Leo Varadkar have discussed a ‘review mechanism’ for the backstop, which could involve an independent arbitration body assessing whether the terms were being honoured and if the arrangement should be ended.
Potentially this could provide a solution that allows Mrs May to say the backstop would not go on for ever.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox – an eminent QC and strident Brexiteer – has been tasked with coming up with a text that satisfies both sides.
But the devil will be in the detail, and ministers are keen to ensure there are ‘robust’ ways for the UK to escape.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey are among the other senior ministers on ‘resignation watch’ if Mrs May makes more concessions.
Downing Street has pinned its hopes of a breakthrough on a proposal drawn up by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
The idea is to include a ‘review clause’ in the Irish border backstop in a bid to convince Brexiteers the UK will not be trapped indefinitely.
But sources in London and Brussels say the EU has so far torpedoed efforts to strike a compromise, once again raising the risk of a no-deal Brexit.
Wednesday evening is seen as a ‘hard’ deadline for settling a deal in order to call an EU summit this month that would sign it off.
The next opportunity is likely to be mid-December. That would leave almost no time for a detailed debate in the Commons and a vote before Christmas.
After the briefing for foreign ministers in Brussels today, an EU council spokesman said: ‘Michel Barnier explained that intense negotiating efforts continue, but an agreement has not been reached yet.
‘Some key issues remain under discussion, in particular a solution to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.’
Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders said: ‘For this moment it’s difficult to make real progress, but before Christmas I’m hoping it will be possible.’
Asked if a special Brexit summit could be staged in November, Mr Reynders said: ‘We are ready to do that but to organise a summit you need to have some progress.
‘If we are in the same situation as 10 days ago it is a nonsense to organise it this month. It will be maybe the case in December.
‘We have seen some movement but it seems to be not enough.’
French Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau said: ‘The ball is in the British court. It is a question of a British political decision.’
In another worrying sign for Mrs May, ministers have been briefing that they had doubts about her Chequers plan for future trade relations with the EU when she pushed them through Cabinet in July.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt are also said to have voiced concerns at the crunch meeting over the summer, according to the BBC.
Former education secretary Justine Greening, a staunch Remainer, today repeated her warning that Mrs May’s plan is the ‘worst of all worlds’ and said she knew other ministers were on the brink of resigning.
‘It leaves us with less influence, loses controls over the rules we have to follow and I have to say, if we were to accept it as a parliament, less credibility as a country in the rest of the world, because they would see that we would be prepared to go for a bad deal,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Several pro-EU ministers, including universities minister Sam Gyimah and business minister Richard Harrington, are said to be contemplating walking out.
French Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau (pictured with Mr Barnier today) said: ‘The ball is in the British court. It is a question of a British political decision.’
In his latest Telegraph column today, Mr Johnson backed his brother Jo’s resignation from the Government and attacked the Prime Minister’s Brexit proposals as ‘shameful’.
‘I can’t really believe it but this Government seems to be on the verge of total surrender,’ he said.
‘With every day that passes we seem to be getting more craven.
‘We have agreed to become the punk of Brussels, signing up not just to their existing rulebook but to huge chunks of future regulation – even though we will have no say in drafting that legislation.’
He condemned proposals to hand over the timing for leaving the customs union and the backstop to an independent mechanism, saying: ‘We are on the verge of signing up for something even worse than the current constitutional position.
‘These are the terms that might be enforced on a colony.
‘On the present plans we will be a vassal state, and in the customs union, until such time as our EU partners may feel moved to enter into fresh negotiations on a trade deal.
‘No member of the Government, let alone the Cabinet, could conceivably support them, or so you would have thought.
‘And yet the awful truth is that even if the Cabinet mutinies – as they ought – it will make little difference.’
That is because, he said, Mrs May wants ‘to remain in captivity’.
Mr Johnson added: ‘It is a recipe for continued strife, both in the Tory party and in the country.
‘This deal, when it comes, must be thrown out wholesale. It is not too late to do better and the country deserves it.’
Mr Johnson said the PM would try to ‘bludgeon MPs into voting for surrender’ by framing the argument as accepting her proposals or the ‘chaos of no deal’.
His brother said Brexit threatened to be the biggest failure of statecraft since Suez in 1956.
But in a sign of Downing Street attempting to push the process forward, Mrs May’s key Brexit adviser Olly Robbins held talks in Brussels yesterday.
The negotiations ran until 2.45am amid desperate efforts to find a way through.
Ramsgate harbour set for upgrades in a no deal Brexit
Ramsgate harbour is set for a massive upgrade in the event of a no deal Brexit.
The dock will need to take on some of the load currently imposed on Dover in the event the main cross-Channel route gets bogged down.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is scrambling to set up possible alternative shipping and cargo routes.
Ramsgate could open up routes to Belgium and bypass France entirely if President Emmanuel Macron plays hardball in a no deal Brexit.
A government spokesman told the Express: ‘There are two reasons for developing Ramsgate.
‘The first is obviously making sure that Dover-Calais doesn’t become a serious bottleneck.
‘The second is that Ramsgate is better placed for trade with Zeebrugge and the Belgians want a bigger share of cross-Channel freight.
‘If Macron really makes life difficult after Brexit, then he would have to explain why trade was moving out of the Pas de Calais to Belgium.’
The two sides have resumed today, with sources saying things could ‘move quickly’ if the pieces ‘fall into place’.
But there is an atmosphere of gloom among UK officials, with apparent resignation that the November summit is a distant prospect.
A Downing Street spokesman said: ‘We have made good progress in the negotiations in relation to the withdrawal agreement but there are substantial issues still to be overcome in relation to the Northern Irish backstop.’
In another example of the clear and present danger for Mrs May, the DUP and Tory Eurosceptic backbenchers issued a joint threat to vote down the premier’s blueprint if it does come to Parliament.
To make matters worse, four more Remainer ministers are said to be on the brink of quitting, after Boris Johnson’s brother Jo walked out demanding another referendum to reverse the whole process.
Downing Street had pinned its hopes of a breakthrough on a proposal drawn up by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
The idea was to include a ‘review clause’ in the Irish border backstop in a bid to convince Brexiteers the UK will not be trapped indefinitely.
But sources in London and Brussels say the EU has torpedoed the ‘Cox compromise’, once again raising the risk of a no-deal Brexit.
Mrs May might now be forced to pull the trigger within days on full-blown preparations for the country crashing out – after officials warned that there is no chance the contingency plans will be ready by March otherwise.
Billions of pounds is set to be spent on issues like rushing through new customs infrastructure, ensuring supplies of medicine and food, and protecting energy provisions in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Brexit chaos deepened after shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer has said Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union can still be halted.
The comments appeared starkly at odds with Jeremy Corbyn, who said last week in an interview with a German magazine: ‘We can’t stop Brexit.’
The Labour leader has also rejected a call by former transport minister Jo Johnson – who quit in protest at the Government’s Brexit policy – for a second referendum.
However, Sir Keir insisted the Labour leadership was fully signed up to the position agreed at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool – including the option of another referendum.
‘Brexit can be stopped. But the real question is: what are the decisions we are going to face over the next few weeks and months?’ he told Sky News.
‘Decision one is on the deal. Decision two is if the deal goes down, should there be a general election? And decision three is, if there is no general election, all options must be on the table including the option of a public vote.
‘That is the clear position. Jeremy is signed up to it. I’m signed up to that.’
Boris Johnson’s brother Jo, above, resigned from the Government and attacked the Prime Minister’s Brexit proposals as ‘shameful’. Boris urged the Cabinet to mutiny against Theresa May’s plans [File photo]
DUP leader Arlene Foster (pictured with deputy Nigel Dodds) has warned she will not tolerate any Brexit package that risks splitting the UK
Keir Starmer defies Jeremy Corbyn and says Brexit CAN be stopped as Labour faces new chaos over a second referendum
Sir Keir Starmer insisted Brexit can be stopped today in defiance of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s claim there is no way of halting the referendum result.
The shadow Brexit secretary insisted ‘all options must be on the table’ including a second referendum.
Mr Corbyn said last week he was powerless to stop Brexit but instead wanted to negotiate an exit on his own terms.
Sir Keir’s intervention deepens Labour’s chaos on quitting the EU. Just yesterday shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry endorsed a new referendum.
Sir Keir Starmer (pictured on Sky News today) insisted Brexit can be stopped in defiance of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s claim there is no way of halting the referendum result
Sir Keir told Sky News: ‘Brexit can be stopped. But the real question is what are the decisions we are going to face over the next few weeks and months?
‘Decision one is on the deal. Decision two is if the deal goes down should there be a general election and decision three is if there is no general election all options must be on the table including the option of a public vote.
‘That is the clear position. Jeremy is signed up to it. I’m signed up to that.’
Last week Mr Corbyn said in an interview: ‘We can’t stop it.
‘The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognise the reasons why people voted Leave.’
What happens if Theresa May does NOT get a Brexit deal with the EU?
With the clock ticking down on negotiations, Westminster’s attention is turning towards what happens if there is no deal.
But the consequences are chaotic and incredibly hard to predict.
Senior Labour figures and Remainers such as Tony Blair insist the government will find it politically impossible to proceed with a no-deal Brexit.
They say rather than crash out, the PM will be forced to call a referendum, or extend the Article 50 process.
But Mrs May is adamant that there is no prospect of her cancelling or delaying Brexit.
Mrs May is adamant that there is no prospect of her cancelling or delaying Brexit
Commons Clerks have pointed out that, short of two-thirds of the Commons voting for an election, there is no legal mechanism for MPs to oblige the government to change course.
The Withdrawal Act has already been passed by Parliament – meaning that the ‘default’ position is for the UK to leave the bloc on March 29, deal or no deal.
Constitutional Clerk Graeme Cowie said that did not mean MPs could not avert a no deal – but it would come down to the strength of political pressure.
‘There is not any legal mechanism by which they can insist upon an alternative other than no deal,’ he told the BBC’s Westminster Hour.
‘The means by which they might achieve that (avoiding no deal) are necessarily political, rather than legal.’
Failure to agree a deal by January 21
Under pressure from Tory rebels, the government ceded a provision in the Withdrawal Act that means they must set out ‘next steps’ to Parliament if a deal has not been done by January 21.
That could be the starting point for massive pressure to be piled on Mrs May to switch her strategy and avoid a no deal outcome.
But while MPs will be able to hold a debate on the plan, any vote would be on a motion in ‘neutral terms’ – along the lines of ‘take note’ – and not amendable.
While MPs will be able to hold a debate on the plan, any vote would be on a motion in ‘neutral terms’ – along the lines of ‘take note’ – and not amendable
What could Remainer MPs do?
Government cannot last long without the support of Parliament, as they must pass Budgets and get their policies through.
But since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was introduced it is considerably harder to force an election.
MPs keen to avoid a no deal could cause a huge amount of trouble, including wrecking any legislation ministers put forward to ease the impact of a no-deal Brexit.
But a government that is determined to press on, and willing to risk a chaotic exit from the EU, could conceivably cling on until it is too late.
The nuclear option for Tory MPs would be to back a vote of no confidence.
However, under the new rules, that would only force Mrs May out, and trigger a two-week period when she is likely to be replaced by another – and potentially more Brexiteer – PM.
A vote of no confidence could force Mrs May out – but she would likely be replaced by another – and potentially more Brexiteer – PM
Will political reality intervene?
Bulldozing through a no deal Brexit in the face of Parliamentary opposition might be possible in theory – but it could prove all-but impossible in reality.
Mrs May could endure ‘death by a thousand cuts’ if she tries, and risks tainting the Tories’ reputation for economic governance by throwing the country into turmoil.
However, the Conservatives will need to balance the reputational problems from crashing out against the political damage of failing to push through Brexit.