Theresa May’s hopes of winning DUP support for her Brexit deal have been dealt a blow after the party demanded significant changes – which the EU is already refusing to allow.
After two days of talks with the prime minister and other senior government figures, the DUP on Thursday revealed it will still refuse to back the deal in its current form.
May made getting DUP support an absolute priority after delaying the Commons vote on the Brexit deal last month in the face of almost certain defeat. She was hoping their backing could start a domino effect to win over scores of Tory opponents.
But two days of talks culminating in a Downing Street lunch with DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds have failed to deliver a breakthrough for May, prompting critics to say her deal had been “killed off”.
The DUP is demanding a re-writing of the withdrawal agreement to resolve “principled objections” over the so-called Irish border backstop, and the PM has been embarking on a round of telephone diplomacy to try and wring concessions.
But on Thursday, Irish premier Leo Varadkar made clear that while he was “happy to offer reassurances and guarantees to the UK” over the temporary nature of the backstop, they could not “contradict or change” the agreed legal text of the agreement.
A spokesperson for European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also said the leaders of the EU’s remaining 27 countries “have been very clear that it will not be renegotiated what is on the table”.
The backstop provides a fallback option of a customs union to maintain a soft Irish border if the UK and Brussels cannot agree a trade deal. But Tory Brexiteers and the DUP fear it could trap Britain in a permanent customs union, leaving it unable to negotiate its own deals around the world.
The DUP also has concerns about extra checks on trade between the province and the rest of the UK, and said the Brexit deal “flies in the face of the government’s commitments” not to draw a de facto border down the Irish Sea.
Following lunch at Number 10, Dodds said Ireland’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit showed that talk of a hard border with Northern Ireland was “nonsense” because no one wants it, or is willing to construct it.
Referring to the backstop, he added: “With this clarity emerging in London, Dublin and Brussels, there is evidently no need for the aspects of the withdrawal agreement which have been so vigorously opposed by a broad cross section of the House of Commons.”
Dodds went on: “Brussels must now demonstrate that if it truly cares about Northern Ireland, then erecting a new east-west barrier should be no more palatable than having any new north-south barriers.”
Varadkar said Irish and British government officials would be speaking by phone on Friday and it would be followed up with “direct contact” with May as needed.
It can’t be something that renders the backstop inoperable.Irish PM Leo Varadkar on potential EU concessions to the UK.
But following a 40 minute phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel, the Irish PM made clear the backstop cannot be dropped.
“It’s up to them to make a proposal but it has to be a proposal that we can accept,” he said.
“It can’t be a proposal that contradicts what’s already in the Withdrawal Agreement.
“It can’t be something that renders the backstop inoperable.”
Backers of a second referendum said the clashes showed May’s deal was “dead in the water”.
Best for Britain boss Eloise Todd said: “If Theresa May can’t convince Nigel Dodds and her own party to back her deal after a one-to-one, why should the country support it? It irritates Leavers and Remainers alike, and it actively concedes influence over British laws. It’s a bad deal.”
Labour MP Owen Smith, who also backs the Best for Britain campaign, said of Varadkar’s comments: “The Irish prime minister has completely destroyed Theresa May’s desperate attempt to change her Brexit deal. The negotiation is basically dead.”