Theresa May has told ministers she is confident of reaching a Brexit deal with the European Union, but stressed “this would not be done at any cost”.
The prime minister updated her cabinet on Tuesday about the progress of negotiations with Brussels, amid signs a divorce agreement could finally be in sight.
Although Mrs May has stated 95% of the UK’s withdrawal agreement is settled, the Irish border issue continues to prove a sticking point in exit talks.
She and her senior ministers discussed plans for a “review mechanism” to ensure the UK is not placed permanently in a backstop arrangement aimed at avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Hopes of a breakthrough have been raised after Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said he was “open” to such a deal, even as he reiterated his red lines on Brexit.
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party prop up the Tories at Westminster, cited Dublin’s position as cause for pessimism about securing an agreement.
“If that’s the trajectory that Dublin is on, then we are heading towards a no-deal,” she told UTV. “That’s not what I want.”
Following the cabinet meeting earlier on Tuesday, Mrs May’s spokesman said: “The prime minister said she was confident of reaching a deal.
“She said that, while the UK should aim to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible, this would not be done at any cost.
“The prime minister said that, once agreement was reached on a withdrawal agreement, it remains the case that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and it will be subject to securing an acceptable full future framework.”
Downing Street later said there is no further cabinet meeting scheduled this week in order for ministers to reach an agreement on Brexit, although one could be held “at the appropriate moment”.
At a Brussels summit in October, EU leaders ruled there was not enough progress in Brexit negotiations in order to call an emergency summit this month to finalise a deal.
However, there have been reports the bloc could yet call an extraordinary gathering of national leaders towards the end of November following recent signs of progress.
Mrs May has been boosted by Mr Varadkar’s willingness to negotiate a review mechanism, thought to be part of proposals for the UK to enter an effective customs union with the EU under a backstop arrangement to prevent a hard Irish border.
The backstop arrangement would come into force should a future EU-UK trade relationship fail to avert a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Tory Brexiteers fear the UK could be left permanently under a backstop agreement with Brussels, curtailing Britain’s ability to sign independent trade deals, with Mrs May having told the EU this cannot be the case.
However, the bloc has rejected UK attempts to place a time limit on any backstop arrangement, while Brexiteers have been pushing for the UK to have the unilateral right to exit a backstop arrangement and force a “no-deal” departure from the EU.
Speaking in the Irish parliament on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar repeated his red lines.
“There can be no expiry date and there can be no unilateral exit clause, and if it were to be either of those things, the backstop would not be worth the paper it was written on,” he said.
However, the Irish prime minister added it may be to Ireland’s “advantage” for a review clause to be included in a backstop agreement.
“I’m open to creative solutions and creative language but we will not resile from our fundamental resolution, the backstop cannot have a time limit or an exit clause,” he continued.
Mr Varadkar was accused by Sinn Fein of having “lost his nerve” in Brexit negotiations by signalling his willingness to reach a compromise solution with the UK.
At a news conference in Slovakia, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier reiterated Brussels’ support for Ireland’s position on a backstop arrangement, as he repeated an overall Brexit deal has yet to be reached.
“We are still not at the 100%,” the European Commission official said.
“What is missing is a solution for the issue of Ireland. Without an operational backstop there will not be an accord and there will not be a transition period. That is certain.”
Mr Barnier added a backstop arrangement “cannot have an end-date” and “must be applicable unless and until another solution is found”.
A leaked document on Tuesday evening appeared to reveal government plans to sell a Brexit deal to MPs and the public.
The memo, seen by the Huffington Post website and other outlets, described a suggested timetable for ministerial speeches and proposals to secure business and foreign leaders’ support for an agreement.
Sky News’ political editor Faisal Islam described the emergence of the notes as “pretty embarrassing” for the government rather than “revelatory”.
“It seems to be an account of the media planning around the glide path into a deal,” he said.
“I have to say it’s already out of date. It has been indicated to us by senior Number 10 sources that there isn’t going to be a [Brussels] summit – as had originally been pencilled in and is assumed by this memo – on 18/19 November.”
He added: “It doesn’t suggest a great deal of confidence that this is all a done deal, in terms of getting parliament to vote for the deal that is yet to be done.”
Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell has signalled his party will vote against the UK being in an effective customs union with the EU for a temporary period after Brexit.
He told the BBC: “I can’t see it because I think it would be the worst of all worlds.
“What I’m getting from business leaders, trade union leaders and others is they want permanence, they want stability.”