Obstacles remain as May labels Brexit process ‘immensely difficult’

Downing Street given Wednesday deadline if Brexit summit to be held by November’s end

Theresa May has described negotiations over Brexit as "immensely difficult" with significant issues in the withdrawal agreement still to be resolved. Speaking at the lord mayor's banquet at the Mansion House in London on Monday night, the prime minister suggested that speculation about an imminent breakthrough in the talks was premature.

“The negotiations for our departure are now in the endgame. And we are working extremely hard, through the night, to make progress on the remaining issues in the withdrawal agreement, which are significant. Both sides want to reach an agreement. But what we are negotiating is immensely difficult. I do not shy away from that,” she said.

Tuesday's cabinet meeting will not discuss a Brexit deal, contrary to comments attributed to Michel Barnier on Monday suggesting that the outline of a deal was ready for British ministers to consider. Mrs May's official spokesman said such speculation should be taken with "a bucket of salt".

European Council president Donald Tusk has told Downing Street that Wednesday evening is the deadline for progress on an agreement if he is to convene a special Brexit summit later this month. At the Mansion House on Monday night, Mrs May said she would make what she believed to be "the right choices, not the easy ones" in pursuing a Brexit deal.

“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. Any deal must ensure we take back control of our laws, borders and money. It must secure the ability to strike new trade deals around the world. And it must also be a deal that protects jobs, our security and our precious union,” she said.

Way out

International development secretary Penny Mordaunt on Monday warned the prime minister that the cabinet could block a deal if it did not offer Britain a clear way out of a backstop that would keep the whole UK in a customs union with the EU.

“The important thing is that there’s two checks on this deal – there’s cabinet and there’s parliament. And so cabinet’s job is to put something to parliament that is going to deliver on the referendum result. We need to work together as a cabinet to do that. And I’m going to be supporting the prime minister to get a good deal for this country,” she said.

Attorney general Geoffrey Cox will offer legal advice on any deal before it is put to cabinet and Labour has tabled a motion in the House of Commons demanding that the advice should be published.

"It's simply untenable for the government to put forward any Brexit deal to parliament without providing the legal advice on what's been agreed," shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said.

“At this critical stage, MPs can’t be kept in the dark nor can we risk parliament being bounced into a decision without having all of the facts available. Ministers should accept this motion and allow MPs to have an informed debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU after Brexit.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times