Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday faced her divided ministers as negotiators scrambled to secure a divorce agreement with the European Union and anxiety mounted over the risk of a no-deal Brexit.
May said Monday her government was working “extremely hard” to save a deal, telling officials of London’s financial district that negotiations “are now in the endgame”.
A British government source said a deal must happen by Wednesday if there is any hope of an extraordinary EU summit this month to sign a withdrawal agreement.
May’s de facto deputy David Lidington told BBC Radio’s Today programme on Monday that a deal was “not quite there yet” but was within “touching distance”.
Agreement was still to be reached on a “small number of difficult issues”, he added, saying a deal before Wednesday was “still possible, but not at all definite”.
May addressed City of London leaders on Monday, saying her negotiators were working “through the night” to make progress on the remaining issues.
“I will not compromise on what people voted for in the referendum. This will not be an agreement at any cost,” she added.
But pro-Brexit ministers in the cabinet are worried that May is set to agree to the EU’s demands over the key sticking point of the Irish border.
– ‘Completely unacceptable’ –
At issue is how to avoid border checks between British Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland after Brexit enters into force on March 29.
London suggests Britain could temporarily stay aligned with the bloc’s trade rules but wants to reserve the right to exit the arrangement.
The EU appears only ready to accept that if there is a fall-back option written into the withdrawal agreement in which Northern Ireland would remain in the European single market while the rest of Britain leaves.
Ministers are set to confront May during Tuesday’s meeting, warning that the EU’s demands were “completely unacceptable”, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Former Brexit minister David Davis, now a strident critic of May’s strategy, warned that the government “should be prepared to exit without a deal”.
Failure to strike a deal by Wednesday could push back the signing of any agreement until a regular EU summit on December 13, dramatically curtailing the time May will have to get the deal past a rebellious British parliament before Brexit day on March 29.
In parliament, May will have to satisfy both pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit wings of her party, as well as Northern Ireland’s DUP party that props her up in Westminster.
British officials hope an emergency EU session could still be held on December 4 and 5, according to the Sun newspaper.
The deal is meant to finalise Britain’s exit bill of around Â£39 billion (45 billion euros, $50 billion).
It must also guarantee citizens’ rights and launch a 21-month transition during which London would follow EU rules.
British and European negotiators will launch more ambitious talks during this transition period on a future trading and legal relationship.