Blow to hopes for Brexit deal as Tory backbenchers back DUP

Unionists reject ‘regulatory divergence’ as Varadkar says he is ‘disappointed’ with impasse

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he is “surprised and disappointed” the British government was unable to conclude a deal he believed had been agreed on Irish Border after Brexit.

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Theresa May’s hopes of securing a deal with Brussels received a blow on Monday night when Conservative backbenchers joined the DUP in warning against any regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Speaking after a meeting with the prime minister’s chief of staff at Westminster, Conservative MPs on both sides of the Brexit debate rejected a proposal that regulation in both parts of the island of Ireland should continue to be aligned after Brexit.

“We are not going to trade on distinctions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That would be completely intolerable. We are the Conservative and Unionist party after all,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent Brexiteer.

The DUP backbench rebellion on Monday scuppered Ms May plans to sign off an agreement with the European Commission to move on to the next phase of the Brexit talks after next week’s summit.

It came after a dramatic day in Dublin and Brussels saw the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, effectively accuse the British government of reneging on an agreed text which saw the British guarantee no changes to the Border after Brexit by pledging to keep “regulatory alignment” between North and South.

The Irish Times understands that the key parts of the agreed text were as follows: “The UK remains committed to protecting North-South co-operation and a guarantee to avoiding a hard Border. The UK’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship.

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“Should this not be possible, the UK will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with the internal market, customs union and protection of the Good Friday agreement.”

Lunch meeting

However, when news of the agreement reached the DUP, the party immediately contacted Ms May – who was having a lunch meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels, and the proposed agreement was put on hold.

Speaking at a delayed press conference in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said: “This text would form a part of the broader EU/UK agreement on phase one [of the Brexit negotiations] and allow us all to move on to phase two. I am surprised and disappointed that the British government now appears not to be in a position to conclude what was agreed earlier today. I accept that the prime minister has asked for more time, and I know that she faces many challenges and I acknowledge that she is negotiating in good faith,” he said.

Downing Street did not immediately respond on Monday night to Mr Varadkar’s account of the negotiations.

Senior figures in the DUP declined to comment on reports that the party had seen a draft agreement on the Border before Ms May met commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Monday. The prime minister interrupted the meeting for a phone call with DUP leader Arlene Foster, who had made a statement minutes earlier insisting that Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

“We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom. The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not be compromised in any way,” she said.

Confidence

Speaking after her meeting with Mr Juncker, Ms May expressed confidence that the two sides could reach an agreement in the coming days.

“There are a couple of issues, some differences do remain, which require further negotiation and consultation. And those will continue but we will reconvene before the end of the week and I am also confident we will conclude this positively,” she said.

With her own backbenchers warning against regulatory divergence for Northern Ireland, Ms May faced accusations from the opposition that she was taking a shambolic approach to the Brexit negotiations. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn blamed the prime minister’s confidence-and-supply deal with the DUP.

“The real reason for today’s failure is the grubby deal the government did with the DUP after the election. It is disappointing that there has not been progress in the Brexit negotiations after months of delays and grandstanding,” he said.

In Dublin, there was widespread support from the Opposition for the Government’s stance. The Opposition party leaders were briefed on the outline of the deal on Monday by Mr Varadkar before Ms Foster raised her objections.

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