Brexit: Johnson reports ‘significant amount of work’ required to reach deal

DUP deputy leader says mooted proposal ‘cannot work’

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said he did not want to give a running commentary on Brexit talks when asked whether Northern Ireland would be leaving the EU customs union.

British prime minister Boris Johnson told his cabinet on Sunday a last-minute Brexit deal was still possible but there was significant work to be done to reach one, as intensive talks with the European Union entered their most critical stage.

In a pivotal week that could decide the future of Brexit, with serious implications for UK, Europe and in particular Ireland, Mr Johnson is trying to strike an exit deal with the EU to allow an orderly split with its biggest trading partner on October 31st.

As the issue of the Border remained centre stage, and following a breakthrough at the meeting between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Johnson on Thursday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier met British Brexit secretary Steve Barclay in Brussels on Friday. They agreed that there would be an intensification of the discussions over the weekend. EU ambassadors were told by Mr Barnier that sufficient reassurances had been received from the UK to turn the existing "technical talks" into fully-fledged negotiations.

Mr Johnson must navigate the complexities of EU politics to strike a deal at an October 17th-18th EU summit and then try to convince a deeply divided British parliament on October 19th to ratify any deal.

Boris Johnson is looked in talks with the European Union this weekend. File photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty.

British and EU negotiators have been working through the weekend to see if they can turn proposals put forward by Mr Johnson, and initially rejected by the EU, into a deal that works for both sides.

Earlier, Mr Johnson briefed cabinet members on progress in those talks by conference call.

“The prime minister updated cabinet on the current progress being made in ongoing Brexit negotiations, reiterating that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31st,” a spokeswoman from his office said.

“The prime minister said there was a way forward for a deal that could secure all our interests.”

If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, many expect serious short-term disruption with possible food, fuel and medicine shortages, and long term damage to Britain’s reputation as a safe and stable home for foreign investment. Repeated warnings have said Ireland’s economy will be worst hit of the remaining European Union states.

Will Rees-Mogg eat his words?

Earlier Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said the prospects of a deal between the UK and the European union looked more positive than they did last week.

Jacob Rees-Mogg departs a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, File photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Speaking on Sky News’s Ridge On Sunday, Mr Rees-Mogg, who is leader of the House of Commons, said: “Well what’s happening is the government made some proposals to the European Union and these are being considered and negotiations seem to be taking a serious turn and that’s encouraging.

“I think it’s always difficult to put specific odds on things, but it certainly looks a lot more positive this week than it did last week.”

However, Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party whose support for the Conservative government may be crucial, poured cold water on a mooted solution to the Brexit impasse.

Reports from Brussels suggested Boris Johnson has revived a compromise Brexit plan which would see Northern Ireland remain in a customs union with the EU, but that it would be administered by the UK.

The DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned that such a solution "cannot work".

“Northern Ireland must stay in a full UK customs union, full stop,” he told the Italian La Repubblica newspaper.

When pushed on whether the British prime minister’s latest Brexit plan is similar to Theresa May’s which he called “completely cretinous”, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “We’ll have to find out in a day or two whether I’ll have to eat my words or not — time will tell.

"There's a line from Churchill saying that he often had to eat his words and he found it to be a very nourishing diet — and that is something that happens in politics."

“We’ll have to wait and see what the precise details are.

“Naturally in the middle of a negotiation these matters are extremely sensitive as everyone is compromising to some degree and therefore to give negotiations the best chance of succeeding, it is best to be discreet about them.

“I can tell you that the cabinet will be briefed at 12.45 this afternoon as to how far these negotiations have gone.”

The Sunday Times newspaper reported that Mr Johnson will speak to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker by the end of Monday.

Referendum call

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn has distanced himself from the idea that Labour could support a bid to attach a referendum to Boris Johnson's Brexit deal at next Saturday's emergency sitting of the British parliament.

The prime minister is expected to convene the House of Commons for a rare Saturday session, either to ask for support for his Brexit deal, if he succeeds in striking one at this week’s European council - or to request that MPs back a no-deal exit at the end of this month.

Pro-remain MPs hope to amend any motion put by the government, to insist that Mr Johnson’s deal be subject to a public vote.

But asked by Sophy Ridge on Sky News whether some MPs would be more likely to support a deal if it would be put to a referendum, Mr Corbyn said: “I think many in parliament, not necessarily Labour MPs but others, might be inclined to support it, because they don’t really agree with the deal - but I would caution them on this.”

He said he would instead be keen to see a Labour-style Brexit deal, including a customs union, and guarantees on workers’ rights and environmental standards, put to the public.

Mr Corbyn's comments appeared to put him at odds with the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, who said in a speech in Glasgow on Saturday that Labour would press for any deal Johnson secures to be subject to a referendum.

“Next week our priorities are clear: if Boris Johnson does manage to negotiate a deal, then we will insist that it is put back to the people in a confirmatory vote,” Mr Starmer said. - PA/Guardian/Reuters