The Government is drawing up new proposals for a “review mechanism” in the Brexit withdrawal agreement, to allow the UK to escape any backstop arrangement if talks on a trade deal break down.
Prime Minister Theresa May is thought to regard the idea as a means of allaying the concerns of Conservative and DUP MPs that Britain could be permanently trapped in a customs union with the EU as part of arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Sources close to talks said London regarded it as a “big step” that the EU side now appears ready to contemplate a means for bringing the backstop to an end short of a broader trade treaty.
Cabinet met for around three hours on Tuesday without reaching agreement on a final offer to present to Brussels.
But Mrs May raised the prospect of a possible second meeting within a week, as she assured senior ministers that Cabinet would gather again at an “appropriate moment” before a deal.
Any agreement will be dependent on an “acceptable” framework for future relations in areas like trade and security, expected to be covered in a separate political declaration, she said.
It is understood that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox briefed Cabinet on a range of options for the review mechanism, believed to include the possibility of an independent body ruling on whether talks had failed.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was accused in the Dublin Parliament of committing a “cock-up” when he told Mrs May on Monday he was ready to consider a mechanism, so long as it did not give the UK unilateral powers to quit.
But he denied making a concession to UK demands for any backstop to be temporary, saying: “There can be no expiry date and there can be no unilateral exit clause, and if it were to be either of those things, the backstop would not be worth the paper it was written on.
“I’m open to creative solutions and creative language, but we will not resile from our fundamental resolution, the backstop cannot have a time limit or an exit clause.”
No additional Cabinet meeting has yet been scheduled ahead of the regular weekly gathering next Tuesday, he told reporters, adding: “Don’t be under any illusion, there remains a significant amount of work to do.”
Hopes of a special Brexit summit to finalise the withdrawal agreement in November appear to be receding.
A gathering of EU leaders in Brussels on the previously mooted date of November 17 is now thought to have been ruled out, while a special summit later in the month would be dependent on EU negotiator Michel Barnier declaring that “decisive progress” has been made in talks.
Mr Barnier himself said a breakthrough on the Irish border issue was not close.
“For now, we are still negotiating and I am not, as I am speaking to you this morning, able to tell you that we are close to reaching an agreement,” he told Belgian broadcaster RTBF.
“There is still a real point of divergence on the way of guaranteeing peace in Ireland, that there are no borders in Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the single market.”
Following the Cabinet meeting, Mrs May’s spokesman said the Prime Minister had told colleagues that 95% of the withdrawal agreement was now concluded, but “on the Northern Ireland backstop, there are a number of issues we still need to work through, and these are the most difficult”.
The spokesman said: “This includes ensuring that if the backstop, if ever needed, is not permanent and there is a mechanism to ensure the UK couldn’t be held in the arrangement indefinitely.
“The Prime Minister said she was confident of reaching a deal. She said that, while the UK should aim to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible, this would not be done at any cost.
“The Prime Minister said that, once agreement was reached on a withdrawal agreement, it remains the case that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and it will be subject to securing an acceptable full future framework.”
“Looks like we’re heading for no deal,” he tweeted.
“Such an outcome will have serious consequences for economy of Irish Republic. In addition, UK won’t have to pay a penny more to EU, which means big increase for Dublin. Can’t understand why Irish Government seems so intent on this course.”
Conservative MP Anna Soubry, a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, said: “Deal or no deal, it’s becoming clearer by the day that the UK is headed for a miserable Brexit. This has turned into a mess that nobody voted for and it’s only going to get worse.
“A choice between a no-deal Brexit and a no-clue Brexit is no choice at all. Only a People’s Vote offers the UK a real choice over our future.”
In the Cabinet meeting, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt suggested that the public were not interested in receiving regular updates on the progress of negotiations, comparing it to airline passengers who want to hear from the pilot at the start and end of a flight but not in between.
Scotland Secretary David Mundell replied that the passengers might want to hear from the pilot if the flight was running significantly over time, to which Environment Secretary Michael Gove responded that as a nervous flyer he found a gin and tonic was helpful in this situation.