Johnson tries to win over DUP as Brexit deal talks intensify

16 October 2019, 08:00

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Brexit talks have continued into the early hours ahead of a crucial EU summit starting on Thursday as the Prime Minister attempts to secure a deal before being obliged to ask for an extension.

Talks between the UK and the EU started on Wednesday morning as efforts intensify to secure a deal ahead of a key EU Summit on Thursday.

Before lunchtime members of the DUP were seen entering Downing Street for the third round of talks in three days.

Shailesh Vara, a member of the European Research Group (ERG), the hardline anti-EU band of Tory MPs, said Britain must not sign up to "any deal".

"The UK must hold its nerve. We must make it clear to the EU that whilst we are happy to have a deal, we want a deal, nevertheless it can't be any deal and hopefully the EU will see sense," the former Northern Ireland minister told the BBC.

"Nobody wants no-deal. We all want to walk away with something that is fair."

The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, spoke to Boris Johnson by phone on Wednesday morning.

Speaking to Sky News, he said: “I am convinced all parties are serious about getting and agreement this week or by the end of the month. There is a pathway to a possible deal, but there are many issues that still need to be fully resolved, particularly around consent and also some issues around customs and VAT.

“I spoke to the prime minister this morning and I’ve been in contact with the [European] commission. I do think we are making progress but there are issues to be resolved and hopefully that can be done today,” he said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has rejected the suggestion that her party is now accepting the latest Brexit proposal on consent.

Irish broadcaster RTE reported that two senior EU sources had confirmed it.

But Mrs Foster tweeted: "'EU sources' are talking nonsense. Discussions continue. Needs to be a sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support."

The Prime Minister needs to secure an agreement so European leaders can approve it at the Brussels summit.

A spokesperson for the British side said talks were "constructive."

A Downing Street source said progress was still being made in the talks, which ran to about 1.30 am in the Belgian capital and will resume on Wednesday morning.

The Prime Minister will hold a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday to update his Ministers on the progress made.

The Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, will update the bloc on the state of the negotiations on Wednesday when he briefs EU commissioners and ambassadors.

Boris Johnson is attempting to build support for a vote, which could possibly be put before MPs as early as Saturday.

Securing a deal before the summit is crucial due to the Benn Act, which would require the Prime Minister to ask the EU for an extension to Brexit if he does not get a new deal approved by the Commons by the Saturday deadline.

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right. Picture: PA

Reports had suggested a deal was close ahead of a midnight deadline imposed by the EU, with the Prime Minister said to be making major concessions on the Irish border.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader and a former ERG chair, however, thinks an agreement could be accepted by MPs, telling LBC: "I think the votes are there now for a deal."

The DUP has helped prop up the Tory government following increased funding from Theresa May as part of a confidence and supply deal, in a £1 billion package branded as a "bribe."

There is speculation more money could be headed in the way of Arlene Foster's party as the PM tries to get them on board with any concessions.

The Guardian reported senior sources on both sides of the Channel saying that a draft treaty could be published on Wednesday morning after the UK agreed in principle there will be a customs border in the Irish Sea.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster
DUP Leader Arlene Foster. Picture: PA

Meanwhile, an independent report has warned the most significant risks to the UK border if there's a no-deal Brexit are now "out of the government's control."

The National Audit Office said it is likely organised criminals would quickly exploit any perceived weaknesses or gaps in enforcement.

It says while all Whitehall departments have been preparing, there would be disruption to goods and travel.

The report said: "It is impossible to know exactly what would happen at the border in the event of no-deal on October 31 2019. Departments face new challenges in monitoring and responding to any disruption that may ensue.

"This includes supporting businesses and individuals in meeting their new obligations, mitigating risks of the border becoming vulnerable to fraud, smuggling or other criminal activity, and activating civil contingency plans if necessary."

The report suggests there are 150,000 to 250,000 traders, estimated by HM Revenue & Customs, who would need to make a declaration for the first time in the event of no-deal.

The NAO said Government's reasonable worst-case planning assumptions state that the flow of goods across the short Channel crossings could initially be reduced to 45-65%, taking up to 12 months to flow normally.

Commenting on the report, a Government spokesman said: "We are doing all that is necessary to ensure that, if we do leave without a deal, the transition will be as smooth as possible for people and businesses - which the NAO recognises.

"This includes simplifying import processes, upgrading IT systems, securing additional freight capacity and putting traffic management plans in place around our busiest ports.

"As the NAO says, many of the challenges that we may face if the UK leaves the EU without a deal require businesses and citizens to take action.

"That's why we are running the largest communications campaign in recent UK history and providing targeted advice to help them get ready for Brexit on 31 October."