Cabinet Brexiteers have urged Theresa May to threaten to hold back billions of pounds of divorce payments to the EU and secure additions to her Brexit deal that spell out how the UK could leave the customs backstop.
Leave supporters including Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, Chris Grayling, and Liam Fox have raised concerns about May’s withdrawal agreement, but the group has varying levels of opposition to the deal. Leadsom is said to remain the most critical, with Gove and Fox the least likely to resign.
All members of the so-called gang of five appear to have climbed down from their previous demands for a unilateral break clause to the backstop. Now new proposals have been made that could give Brexiteers a way of backing May’s deal.
BuzzFeed News understands that in meetings with the prime minister this week it was suggested the UK could seek to add a schedule to the withdrawal agreement providing clarification on the means by which the UK could leave the backstop — the insurance policy to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The schedule would not look to renegotiate the deal, but “flesh out” what has already been agreed. It would attempt to assuage Brexiteers’ concerns by including specific examples of conditions that, if met, would allow the UK to leave the backstop. May was said to have responded positively to the suggestion.
One condition could include the development of the Brexiteers’ favoured “maximum facilitation” plan for a technological solution to the Irish border. At Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, ministers were told “alternative arrangements” such as max fac could present a way out of the backstop.
Downing Street hopes this, plus language in the political declaration on the future relationship, will provide a fig leaf that convinces Brexiteers a Canada-style free trade agreement is still on the table, giving them a political ladder to climb down to vote for May’s deal. An official close to one cabinet Brexiteer told BuzzFeed News there were “good vibes” from today’s meeting.
Under one proposal put forward by cabinet Brexiteers this week, the decision as to whether the conditions to leave the backstop had been met could be made on the recommendation of the North South Ministerial Council, the body established under the Good Friday Agreement made up of members of the Northern Irish and Irish executives.
The schedule, which as an annex to the withdrawal agreement would be legally binding, would prevent the EU or UK from “unreasonably” vetoing a North South Ministerial Council recommendation to end the backstop. It would, however, fall short of the unilateral break clause that Brexiteers had previously sought, and would still rely on mutual agreement with the Republic of Ireland.
An EU source suggested that provisions to take into account the decision-making terms of the Good Friday Agreement, such as consultation with the North South Ministerial Council, were already covered in the withdrawal agreement.
Senior ministers have also suggested that the UK should hold back part of the £39 billion divorce settlement it has agreed to pay the EU, BuzzFeed News understands. The money should be contingent on sufficient progress being made on the future relationship, one cabinet minister said. This was described as a nonstarter by an EU source.
May is heading to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon for further negotiations with Jean-Claude Juncker.
Talks with Brussels were ongoing on Tuesday, with one source telling BuzzFeed News the UK is still pushing for a commitment to “frictionless trade” to be included in the political declaration.
The source said the withdrawal agreement was close to being completed, but that talks on the political declaration were not finished and that both sides hoped they would be resolved by Thursday.
Alberto Nardelli contributed additional reporting to this story.
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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