May gathers Cabinet amid claims Brexit deal ‘within touching distance’

PM’s 36 hours to save Brexit: May faces Cabinet showdown over last-ditch concessions to Brussels as she has until TOMORROW NIGHT to seal a deal

  • Theresa May is holding another Cabinet meeting with Brexit talks in the balance
  • Ministers have been warning Mrs May that no deal is better than caving to the EU
  • Cabinet Office minister David Lidingon says agreement is ‘in touching distance’
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Theresa May is braced for a frantic 36-hour dash to save her Brexit plan amid claims a deal with the EU is ‘within touching distance’.

The Prime Minister is updating her senior team on progress today as frantic negotiations continue in Brussels – with the two sides again working until the early hours.

But no breakthrough has yet been secured on the crucial Irish border issue, as the clock runs down on a deadline of tomorrow for triggering crunch summit that could approve a divorce package this month.

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said this morning that a deal was ‘almost within touching distance’, but stressed that one would not ‘definitely’ be done within the timeframe. 

But Boris Johnson has torn into ‘stage managed delays’ to the Brexit process, saying people should not be ‘fooled by this theatre’ and a ‘surrender’ by the government is imminent. 

As pressure ratchets up on Mrs May, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said to be spearheading a group of ministers warning that crashing out of the EU is better than caving into the bloc’s demands.

Mr Raab has apparently being trying to harden the resolve of colleagues by assuring them that a no-deal Brexit can be ‘managed’.

Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt yesterday insisted the Cabinet would act as a ‘check’ on what kind of deal the premier agrees to.   

Mrs May used a speech in London last night to try and head off the mounting unrest, saying she will not do a deal ‘at any cost’.

Dominic Raab (pictured right in Downing Street with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson today) has apparently being trying to harden the resolve of colleagues by assuring them that a no-deal Brexit can be ‘managed’

Theresa May (pictured at a banquet in London last night) tried to head off the mounting unrest by saying she will not do a deal ‘at any cost’

Trade Secretary Liam Fox (left) is said to have discussed concerns with fellow Brexiteers in his office last night. Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt (right) yesterday insisted the Cabinet would act as a ‘check’ on what kind of deal the premier agrees to

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington (pictured in Downing Street today) said a deal in the next 48 hours was ‘possible but not definite’

Boris Johnson tore into ‘stage managed delays’ to the Brexit process saying no-one would be ‘fooled’ by the manoeuvring

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In her annual address to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, she said negotiations were approaching ‘the end game’.

But she stressed there were still ‘significant’ issues that continue to block the path to a deal with Brussels.

Asked about the prospects of a deal in time for a summit to be called this month, Mr Lidington told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘Still possible but not at all definite I think pretty much sums it up.’

Irish border backstop mechanism is the final hurdle in divorce talks

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. 


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.

But the devil will be in the detail, and ministers are keen to ensure there are ‘robust’ ways for the UK to escape.

He added: ‘We are not quite there yet. This was always going to be an extremely difficult, extremely complex negotiation but we are almost within touching distance now. 

‘But, as the PM has said, it can’t be a deal at any price. It has got to be one that works in terms of feeling we can deliver on the referendum result and that is why there is a measure of caution.’ 

Mr Lidington admitted that the government will need to trigger large scale no-deal plans soon if there is no resolution – but played down suggestions this week is a hard deadline to launch contingencies and avoid the UK being unprepared to leave without an agreement.

But Mr Johnson was scathing about the manoeuvring, saying it was all for show. 

‘No one is fooled by this theatre. Delay after staged managed delay,’ he wrote on Twitter. 

‘A deal will be reached and it will mean surrender by the UK.

‘We will be doomed to remain in the customs union and under Brussels’ regulatory control. People did not vote for colony status.

‘The future can be bright if only we change course now.’ 

Michel Barnier seemed to make a bid to bounce the UK into a deal yesterday, after he briefed EU ambassadors that a deal was ‘largely’ done and could be put to the Cabinet this morning.

Downing Street dismissed the claim as ‘total b******s’, and the agenda for the meeting today is only believed to include an update on progress in talks and planning for no-deal. 

If no deal is agreed by tomorrow, the prospects of a special Brexit summit in Brussels in November will dwindle close to zero.

The next available opportunity is not likely to be until mid-December – reducing Mrs May’s chances of holding a vote in Parliament before Christmas.

Mr Raab is said to have met for drinks with other senior Brexiteers in Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s office last night to discuss their concerns.

Mrs May told the audience at Guildhall in London that while both sides wanted a viable withdrawal agreement, ‘what we are negotiating is immensely difficult’.

She added: ‘Overwhelmingly, the British people want us to get on with delivering Brexit, and I am determined to deliver for them.

‘I want them to know that I will not compromise on what people voted for in the referendum. This will not be an agreement at any cost.’

She repeated her assertion that a deal must give the UK control of ‘our laws, borders and money’, plus the freedom to strike trade deals while protecting jobs, security and the Union. 

The growing Remainer backlash against Brexit was illustrated last week when Jo Johnson, brother of former foreign secretary Boris, quit as transport minister demanding a second referendum.

Writing in The Times, he said what was being offered was a false choice ‘between vassalage and chaos’ and backed the campaign for a People’s Vote. 

Mr Johnson said: ‘We’re today in the extraordinary position where even the staunchest advocates of Brexit, including my brother Boris, publicly admit we’d be better off staying in the EU than with the PM’s deal.’

‘That’s why the argument the government will present for its hopeless package is not that it is better for Britain than our current membership.

‘The only case she (Mrs May) can try to make is that it is better than the alternative of leaving the EU with no deal at all. Well, that’s a low bar indeed.

‘How have our ambitions for our country fallen this far this fast? We can and must do better.’ 

In a move that could either provide a boost or an additional headache for Mrs May, senior EU officials are due to discuss whether UK citizens should be required to obtain a GBP52 (60 euro) visa to enter the EU after Brexit.

The college of commissioners will meet in Strasbourg where they will receive an update on Brexit negotiations from Mr Barnier.

But also due to be on the agenda is whether Britain should be treated as a ‘third country’ whose citizens would require a permit to visit the continent.

Among the ministers at the Cabinet meeting today were (left to right) Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, and Esther McVey 

Michel Barnier (pictured in Brussels) seemed to make a bid to bounce the UK into a deal, after he briefed EU ambassadors that a deal was ‘largely’ done and could be put to the Cabinet

What happens if Theresa May manages to get a Brexit deal?

EU Negotiator Michel Barnier (right) and EU Council President Donald Tusk (left) are key players in the Brexit process

If Theresa May manages to overcome the final hurdle in divorce negotiations with the EU and get Cabinet approval for a deal, it is far from the end of the story.

Here is how events could develop once a draft agreement is reached. 

Emergency EU Summit, Brussels, late November

If the divorce package is agreed between the two sides, it will need to be signed off by EU leaders.

EU council president Donald Tusk will convene a summit where formal approval will be given.

But UK sources expect that at this stage the package will not be fully formed, as the political declaration on the shape of future trade relations will not be complete.

While a rough draft of the declaration will be included, it will not be fleshed out until potentially weeks later. That could happen at a summit due on December 13-14. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) is still a crucial figure in the Brexit drama

The so-called ‘meaningful vote’ in the UK Parliament, December 2019

Assuming there is a withdrawal treaty and political declaration, the next stage is for the action is in the UK Parliament.

Mrs May promised Tory Remain rebels a ‘meaningful’ vote on the final deal in both the Commons and Lords.

The government wants this to be a simple yes or no vote on what she has negotiated – although both Remainers and Brexiteers have vowed to try to put down amendments.

This will be a high stakes moment. Brexiteers do not want to sign off the divorce bill without a satisfactory trade deal and Remainers are reluctant to vote for a blind Brexit. 

But the Prime Minister insists it is deal or no deal: accept what she has negotiated or leave Britain crashing out on March 29, 2019 with no agreement in place.

If the meaningful vote is passed, there will be a series of further votes as the withdrawal treaty is written into British law.

The Prime Minister (pictured at the EU Council in June) has made clear the UK will leave without a deal if MPs reject her package

Ratification in the EU, February 2019 

After the meaningful vote in the UK, the EU will have to ratify the agreement. This is a two stage process.

National parliaments in all 27 countries have to vote on the deal. It does not need to pass everywhere but must be carried in at least 20 of the 27 countries, with Yes votes covering at least 65 per cent of the EU population.

The European Parliament must also vote in favour of the deal. It has a representative in the talks, Guy Verhofstadt, who has repeatedly warned the deal must serve the EU’s interests.

In practice, once the leaders of the 27 member states have agreed a deal, ratification on the EU side should be assured.

Exit day, March 29, 2019 

At 11pm on March 29, 2019, Britain will cease to be a member of the European Union, two years after triggering Article 50 and almost three years after the referendum. 

Exit happens at 11pm because it must happen on EU time.

If the transition deal is in place, little will change immediately – people will travel in the same way as today and goods will cross the border normally. 

But Britain’s MEPs will no longer sit in the European Parliament and British ministers will no longer take part in EU meetings.

Negotiations will continue to turn the political agreement on the future partnership into legal text that will eventually become a second treaty. Both sides will build new customs and immigration controls in line with what this says.

Transition ends, December 2020

The UK’s position will undergo a more dramatic change at the end of December 2020, when the ‘standstill’ transition is due to finish.

If the negotiations on a future trade deal are complete, that could come into force.

But if they are still not complete the Irish border ‘backstop’ plan could be triggered.

Under current thinking, that means the UK staying in the EU customs union and more regulatory checks between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

Eurosceptics fear this arrangement will prevent the country striking trade deals elsewhere, and could effectively last for ever, as Brussels will have no incentive to negotiate a replacement deal. 

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