James Forsyth

Are we heading for a Salzburg-style smash?

Are we heading for a Salzburg-style smash?
Text settings

Sunday night was when the deal on the Irish backstop was meant to be done. But, as I say in The Sun this morning, this now seems unlikely to happen. The UK  and the EU are just too far apart on too many issues.

There are two big issues at play. One, whether there should be a UK-wide backstop or one for Great Britain and another for Northern Ireland. I am told that at Thursday’s meeting of the inner Cabinet, ministers were told that the EU has not yet agreed to a UK-wide customs backstop. The second question is whether the backstop should be time limited.

One member of the inner Cabinet who attended its discussion on Thursday night tells me that the meeting ‘didn’t really settle anything’. I am told that ‘The PM chaired as opposed to opined’.

I understand that Liam Fox was clear that the UK backstop must have an end date to it. His argument is that without that the EU would have little motivation to sign a trade deal with the UK as it’d have it in a customs union already. The UK also not be able to make meaningful trade deals with any other country in this period.

Other Cabinet Ministers also made clear that this customs union had to be temporary. But they were less emphatic than Fox about the need for a date. Most of them accept Number 10’s point that the EU wouldn’t accept a date, so some other form of time limit is needed.

Interestingly, Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, was one of the most adamant on this point. One minister present tells me that Hunt was ‘harder than you’d expect’.

I understand that the current thinking is that the UK will request a break clause. One well informed source tells me, ‘The fudge of the review date will keep most of the Cabinet together’.

But the problem is the Cabinet Brexiteers are clear that they don’t want the EU to control the break clause. It is, though, hard to see the EU not insisting that--at the very least--the Northern Irish part of the backstop can only be ended with its permission. One of those close to the negotiations tells me, ‘If their appetite for fudge is as good as the PM’s then a deal can be done. But I’m not sure it is’.

Another government source warns that while the EU is prepared to fudge the political declaration, it won’t fudge the withdrawal agreement as that is a legal document.

All of this suggests to me that there won’t be an agreement when May heads to Brussels on Wednesday. This raises the prospect of another UK/EU smash up with little time left to put things back together.