Brexit negotiations are continuing, Communities Secretary James Brokenshire has insisted amid reports that major concessions had been made by Brussels.
The Sunday Times reported that the EU would allow the creation of a whole-UK customs union that would avoid the need for a Northern Ireland border “backstop” that has been at the heart of the impasse in negotiations.
At the same time, it reported that the Prime Minister was on course to agree a future economic partnership that would leave open the possibility of Canada-style free trade deal sought by Brexiteers.
Brokenshire, appearing on Sky’s Ridge On Sunday, was asked if a deal was close, replying: “Well, we want to get that deal, we’re obviously working hard to see that that happens.
“Negotiations are still very firmly continuing, and therefore we are 95% of the way there in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Obviously still having this issue in relation to the insurance arrangements for Northern Ireland and Ireland, and that very much remains our focus and attention in getting that deal.”
A Downing Street spokeswoman added: “The Prime Minister is clear we are leaving the customs union.
“We are making good progress on the future relationship, and 95% of the Withdrawal Agreement has been settled. Negotiations are ongoing.”
A spokesman for Ireland’s Tanaiste Simon Coveney said: “The UK has given written commitments last December and March that the Withdrawal Agreement will include a legal guarantee of no return to a hard border in Ireland in any circumstance.
“In March the UK agreed this backstop will apply ‘unless and until’ a close future relationship eliminates any need for border infrastructure or related checks and controls.
“While we too hope the Northern Ireland backstop will never be required to be used, it will be required to be written down in legal text.
“This has been committed to by the UK in order to have a Withdrawal Agreement. We hope a deal can be done but we’re not there yet.”
It came as more than 70 business leaders backed a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, warning that the UK faces “either a blindfold or a destructive hard Brexit” that would be bad for both firms and jobs.
Waterstones chief executive James Daunt, ex-Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King, Lastminute.com founder Baroness Lane-Fox and Innocent Drinks co-founder Richard Reed were among signatories of a letter calling for a People’s Vote on leaving the European Union.
The letter argues that both the Government’s current plans for Brexit, and a no-deal Brexit, would leave the country worse off than they were being in the EU if the country left in March.
Other people who put their name to the letter include Cobra Beer founder Lord Bilimoria, former Marks and Spencer chairman and ex-Labour peer Lord Myners, Alex Chesterman, founder of the Zoopla property website, and Sir Simon Robertson, the ex-chairman of Rolls-Royce.
In a separate development, former prime minister Tony Blair said that MPs should “resist” agreeing to what may be labelled a “reasonable deal”.
Writing in the Observer he said: “There is the pointless, the painful or fudge through postponement of the core issues. Each option is bad.
“MPs should vote it down and give the people the final say.”