Theresa May’s faltering Brexit deal was on Tuesday night still in limbo despite the Democratic Unionist Party and David Davis both making major concessions.
The Prime Minister’s plan to give Northern Ireland a separate customs arrangement in some sectors after Brexit to keep a soft border with Ireland was sunk on Monday by the unionists.
But Brexit Secretary David Davis on Tuesday told MPs any special customs deal agreed for Northern Ireland would extended to the rest of the UK – echoing the suggestion of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.
That led the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds to soften his position and admit there may need to be “regulatory alignment” with the EU in some areas – meaning the deal could be back on the table.
The concessions could be enough to allow the EU to vote in favour of sufficient progress in the talks at a summit next week, and allow the negotiations to move on to trade.
But Theresa May was still to speak to the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster on the telephone - despite expectations earlier in the day the pair would talk and and at least agree a deal in principle.
Downing Street said on Tuesday morning it expected Theresa May to return to Brussels later this week to thrash out more details of the deal - and she could depart for the Belgian capital straight after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday afternoon in a bid to keep up momentum.
But some senior cabinet ministers have reportedly expressed unease over May’s handling of the process, complaining they were not informed in advance about plans to promise the EU a form of “regulatory alignment” to move talks on to trade matters.
Meanwhile, Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith warned the EU to “back off” or the UK will proceed with a ‘no deal’ Brexit, hitting out at the Irish government for cooking-up a political storm over the Irish border for domestic gain.
In an insight into Monday’s day of drama, in which a deal on the Irish border seemingly came and went, Dodds revealed he and his DUP colleagues only saw the proposed agreement just before lunch.
He told reporters: “Despite several briefings in the course of the past few weeks we only received written text late yesterday morning.
“We understand this was due in part to delays caused by the Irish government and the EU negotiating team.
“Upon immediate receipt of that text we indicated to senior government representatives it was clearly unacceptable in its current form.”
DUP leader Foster also claimed the Irish Government said the UK could not show the text of the Brexit deal to the DUP before Monday and that it was “a big shock” when her party finally had sight of it.
She told Sky News: “We had asked for a text on a number of occasions, to be told that there was no text.
“We spoke on Sunday evening - didn’t have text. The text landed with us late Monday morning. That left us in a very difficult position.”
Foster said her party would be demanding changes to the text of the deal before it would accept it.
When asked if he believed regulatory alignment was different from harmonisation, Dodds said: “Northern Ireland already has a single energy market with the Irish republic so there are already areas where we can cooperate with the energy market and areas where it may make sense to have some kind of regulatory alignment in certain specific areas, but not in relation to following the rules of the Single Market or the customs union for northern Ireland as a generality.”
Addressing MPs in the Commons before Dodds’ press conference, Davis repeatedly said the Government would not give Northern lreland any deal that did not apply to the rest of the UK.
Davis agreed with Scottish Tory MP Paul Masterton, who said: “If regulatory alignment in certain specific areas is a requirement to solve the Northern Ireland border issue, then protecting the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom requires that solution to be adopted UK wide.”
The Brexit Secretary replied: “Every approach we take will treat the whole of the United Kingdom as a single constitutional entity and a single economic entity.”
During his grilling, Davis appeared to deliver a slap-down to hard Brexiteers who want to see the UK move away from EU rules and regulations in order to strike new trade deals.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg asked: “Is it not essential that the red lines on maintaining the United Kingdom and on regulatory divergence whence the benefits of leaving come are indelible red lines?”
Davis replied: “The red line for me is delivering the best Brexit for Britain and that’s what we’ll do.”
Numerous Labour MPs, including Ben Bradshaw and Chris Leslie - along with Tory Anna Soubry - called on the Government to keep the UK in the Single Market and customs union in order to protect the soft border with Ireland.
Former education secretary Nicky Morgan said the prospect of exiting the EU in March 2019 with no trade deal on the table was not in the interests of the country and would be “madness”.
“Walking away when the Brexiteers encounter difficulties they never bothered to anticipate is not in the national interest, betrays the futures of millions of young people and those who never wanted to leave in the first place,” she added.
Davis repeatedly ruled out this option.