Brexit: Theresa May under pressure to secure further concessions from EU

Theresa May will travel to Brussels today to meet the European Union's top official under pressure from Tory Brexiteers to secure further concessions.

Wednesday, 21st November 2018, 6:52 am
Updated Wednesday, 21st November 2018, 7:56 am

The Prime Minister will meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker for talks ahead of the special EU Brexit summit on Sunday.

She is under pressure to make changes to the Northern Irish backstop contained in the Brexit divorce agreement, making it clear how the UK can exit the controversial arrangement.

The trip to Brussels, and another potentially tricky session of Prime Minister’s Questions, come amid mounting evidence of tensions between Mrs May and the Democratic Unionist Party over the Brexit deal.

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The Government caved in to a series of opposition amendments to its Budget-enacting Finance Bill in the latest sign that the DUP’s MPs would not support Mrs May’s minority administration.

Mrs May’s talks with Mr Juncker follow confirmation from Number 10 that the Government will look at potential technological solutions to keep the Irish border open.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed that references in last week’s draft agreement to “alternative arrangements” for the border could involve technical measures of the kind previously promoted as the “maximum facilitation” solution, or Max Fac.

Brexiteer ministers want her to press for clarity on how the UK can avoid or end the use of the backstop, which would require the whole UK to be in a single customs territory with the EU and force Northern Ireland to align with many of Brussels’ single market rules after 2020 unless an alternative is found.

A Brexit-backing minister said that the negotiation process was “not over until it’s over” and it was now a case of “who blinks first” as Brussels did not want either the backstop to be implemented or the prospect of the UK crashing out without a deal.

Brussels has indicated that the withdrawal agreement, setting out the terms of the UK’s divorce from the bloc, will not be rewritten - although work is ongoing to flesh out the political declaration on the future UK-EU relationship.

Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney told parliament in Dublin: “This is a text that has been agreed between the negotiations teams, it has been agreed by the British government.

“So to that extent, it is not a draft text, it’s now the text, and it is not going to be reopened.”

The Brexit deal has angered the DUP and jeopardised the confidence and supply deal which props up Mrs May’s minority government.

After a DUP revolt in the Commons on Monday, the Government accepted a series of amendments on Tuesday without votes to avoid a repeat.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds: “We have kept to our word in relation to the confidence and supply agreement, but even Cabinet members have found themselves having to resign because this deal does not represent those shared objectives in relation to the Union.

“The Government will require DUP support to deliver its domestic agenda. We will continue to use our influence for the good of everyone across the United Kingdom.”

Leading Tory Brexiteer Boris Johnson - a prominent critic of Mrs May’s approach - is expected to address the DUP’s conference at the weekend.

In a sign that the Government is seeking to keep its arrangement with the DUP alive, Chancellor Philip Hammond is also expected to attend the gathering in Belfast, according to Co Fermanagh newspaper the Impartial Reporter.

But Labour claimed the DUP’s approach meant the Government was on the brink of collapse.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “It’s absolutely staggering that the Government has accepted all Labour amendments to the Finance Bill because it couldn’t rely upon the DUP’s support.

“The Tories are in office but not in power. We’re watching a government falling apart in front of us.”

The DUP may have given the Prime Minister a political headache, but she appears to have averted an immediate challenge to her position from Tory critics.

The attempt to force a vote of no confidence in her leadership spearheaded by Jacob Rees-Mogg has so far failed to win enough support to force a showdown.

Last week, senior figures from the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of Tories were confidently predicting they would get the 48 letters of no confidence from MPs needed to trigger a vote in Mrs May’s leadership.

But ERG chairman Mr Rees-Mogg acknowledged they were struggling to get the support they needed and warned Tory MPs that unless they acted now, Mrs May would lead the party into the next general election despite a lack of enthusiasm for that prospect within the Conservative ranks.

“You find MPs privately who will say to you they think that is a really good idea in any number and I would be quite surprised,” he said.