Theresa May has warned her fractious Cabinet that her Brexit plan can only be delivered if all ministers “stand together” and unite.
The Prime Minister’s words, at the end of a two-and-a-half hour meeting of her top team, followed intense speculation that some senior figures were ready to quit if the UK tied itself to EU customs rules indefinitely.
Just hours after a third of the Cabinet took part in a private ‘pizza club’ meeting to discuss their fears of giving too much ground to the EU, May stressed that there could only be progress if Britain presented a united front.
“I’m convinced that if we as a government stand together and stand firm, we can achieve this,” she told her colleagues.
But Labour said the continued lack of agreement by the Cabinet proved that May was “in office but not in power”.
Her remarks also came amid fresh signs that neither the EU nor UK expect any breakthrough at a Brussels summit this week.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier effectively killed off any hopes of rapid progress when he announced more time was need to agree an “overall accord.”
“We will use that time, calmly, with serious intent to find the overall deal in the coming weeks,” he said.
Barnier’s comment raised the prospect that a deal may not be done until a further summit later this year, and the talks could go to the wire or even collapse altogether and result in a ‘no deal’ outcome.
EU council President Donald Tusk added that he would on Wednesday “ask Prime Minister May whether she has concrete proposals on how to break the impasse”.
Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said earlier on Tuesday: “I never expected agreement to happen this week. I felt it will take until November to get done. Let’s hold our nerve now and continue negotiation.”
The PM’s official spokesman also pointed out that the UK had always said it wanted a deal “by the autumn” and this week’s summit was just “part of the process”.
He added that today’s meeting of the Cabinet was not a “decision-making” event.
There was however “a very detailed discussion” of the outstanding problems with the EU’s solution for avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“They discussed their shared concerns over the proposals as they stand,” the spokesman said, adding that no minister threatened to resign.
May told the Cabinet “there will no doubt be challenging moments ahead” but she was hopeful that a deal could be done.
Despite its lengthy meeting, the Cabinet did not agree a new UK alternative to the EU’s plan for an Irish ‘backstop’, which would keep Northern Ireland effectively in EU rules to avoid a hard customs and regulatory border with Ireland.
“They discussed the need for a mechanism to clearly define how the backstop will end,” the spokesman said.
Some ministers want a specific end-date, but No.10 is working on a different plan to avoid turning a planned temporary customs arrangement into an indefinite tie to the EU.
Eight Cabinet ministers, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Environment Secretary Michael Gove met in Commons leader Andrea Leadsom’s office on Monday night to share pizza and discuss their way forward.
Also attending were International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, Treasury Secretary Liz Truss and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman said: “With two days until a crucial EU summit, it is simply extraordinary that the Cabinet can’t agree what its plan for Brexit is. If the Cabinet can’t make a decision on Brexit, then what’s on earth is the point of it?”
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, for the pro-EU Best for Britain campaign, said: “The Prime Minister made a plea for unity but many of the Brexiters around the cabinet table are creating mayhem.”