Brexit talks will stretch until “one minute to midnight” in order to secure a last-minute deal at this week’s European Council, Downing Street sources said yesterday.
Negotiators were locked in talks throughout the night after EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said a legal text must be on the table by this morning at the latest, if it is to be signed off by leaders at the European Council, which starts on Thursday.
Sources on both sides distanced themselves from a fixed deadline. Draft versions of the summit agenda have Brexit talks pencilled in for the Thursday evening dinner, which could run late into the night.
Meanwhile in Westminster, MPs are bracing themselves for a rare Saturday sitting, with the government planning to hold a vote on the extra session on Thursday, ahead of the Brussels summit.
Hopes have been rekindled that a deal could be struck after Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled an appearance before the backbench 1922 meeting on Monday night, to hold talks with the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster. He then postponed the usual Tuesday morning Cabinet, which will instead be held late Wednesday afternoon, with hopes of presenting with a breakthrough deal.
Yesterday morning Johnson also held a “constructive” phone call with French President Emannuel Macron.
Backbenchers told City AM they were expecting a meaningful vote on the 11th-hour deal to be brought on Saturday, with the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) landing in the Commons as early as Tuesday, “curtailing” the rest of the Queen’s Speech debates.
A Number 10 spokesman declined to comment on specifics, saying only: “The Prime Minister is working very hard to get a deal, and is aware of the time constraints.”
A source added that previous agreements had been struck at “one minute to midnight” – and that Brexit would be no different.
The details of any final deal are being kept under wraps, although reports from Brussels suggest London has given ground on customs rules for Northern Ireland.
The view from Westminster is that any deal will resemble Theresa May’s deal “with significant changes to the backstop”, according to one source – although another source suggested that could simply mean a rebranding exercise.
“The timings imply the legal text is already there – either it’s been drawn up behind closed doors, which I doubt… or that broadly we are going back to Theresa May,” the former minister said.
But if no deal is struck, questions remain over whether the government will seek an extension to Article 50.
“The Benn Act only requires a motion to be passed requiring an extension, and once you’ve done that you can play with the Commons, and then you ram through the WAB,” one Conservative MP said.
The EU has opened the possibility of a technical extension with an emergency European Council, if it is thought negotiators are close to striking a deal.
“The last moment is always a bit later than you think,” one diplomat told AFP.
“I am sceptical that we will have a full agreement tomorrow on a legal text … . the question is whether the work can be done in the next few days or whether it will take another two months.”
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