Theresa May has lowered expectations of an early breakthrough on Brexit, telling reporters that negotiations on the Northern Ireland backstop are likely to continue into November. EU negotiators hoped that intensive negotiations in Brussels this week would produce an agreed text on the backstop ahead of next week's meeting of the European Council.
Mrs May's remarks to reporters from Northern Ireland came as DUP leader Arlene Foster said the prime minister could not "in good conscience" recommend a backstop that keeps Northern Ireland under EU regulations.
“Brussels wants Northern Ireland to have access to the EU single market and trade within the rules set by the EU under the European Courts of Justice,” she said.
"However, Brussels also wants to place an effective one-way turnstile from Northern Ireland into the rest of the United Kingdom. Trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland would be in danger of restriction. Indeed, Northern Ireland's access to any new United Kingdom trade deals would also be regulated by Brussels. That is not the best of both worlds. That is the worst of one world."
The DUP has threatened to vote against the budget at Westminster later this month if it is unhappy with the deal on the backstop, and the party’s MPs abstained during a vote on an agriculture Bill on Wednesday night in an apparent show of strength.
Senior Conservatives on Thursday played down the likelihood that the DUP would pull out of its confidence-and-supply arrangement with the government, and Scottish secretary David Mundell said they would have to consider the alternative to backing the prime minister on Brexit.
The Good Friday Agreement cannot be rewritten or taken out of its historic context
“We’re in an ongoing dialogue with the DUP, who are forthright and very experienced in tough negotiations. I’m sure they too will be persuaded the alternatives – of no deal or potentially a Corbyn government – would not be of benefit to them or Northern Ireland,” he said.
Conservative deputy chair Helen Grant said she believed the DUP were "bluffing" when they threatened to vote against the budget.
A deal on the backstop is likely to face opposition not only from the DUP but from Brexiteers on the Conservative backbenches who believe it could leave the whole of the UK in an indefinite customs union with the EU. Some Eurosceptic cabinet ministers could resign when the deal is unveiled, and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey on Thursday repeatedly declined to say if she supported the prime minister’s plan for Brexit.
In the House of Lords on Thursday, former archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames asked the British government how strong was its commitment to protect the Good Friday Agreement after Brexit.
“Too often some try to rewrite history, so let us be clear – as an agreement of historic significance it cannot be rewritten or taken out of its historic context. But that is only one part of the story. Through it, the community was given the opportunity to build a fair and peaceful society. Hope was rekindled,” he said.