The EU and UK are racing to get a Brexit deal over the line in the coming hours as Boris Johnson seeks to drum up political support for plans hammered out during marathon negotiations in Brussels.
Talks between British and EU teams ended at around 1.30am on Wednesday and were due to resume this morning as the two sides face a shrinking window of time to work through the details of a plan ahead of an EU Council summit on Thursday.
Downing Street insiders are nervous over whether the Democratic Unionist Party will eventually come on board to back a new Brexit deal, with one official describing the mood as “jittery”. The support of the DUP will be crucial if any deal is to pass in parliament.
Following a 90-minute meeting between DUP leader Arlene Foster, the party’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds and Downing Street officials last night, an official with the DUP said: “it would be fair to indicate gaps remain and further work is required”.
The pound slipped in early London dealings on Wednesday after a 1.4 per cent rise against the dollar on Tuesday on hopes of a breakthrough in Brexit talks. Sterling was off 0.24 per cent at $1.2756 in early Wednesday trading.
The EU has insisted that a legal text for the revised withdrawal agreement needs to be hammered out before EU leaders convene in Brussels on Thursday. EU chiefs had warned Mr Johnson on Tuesday that unless the UK made new concessions he would be forced to accept an extension to his October 31 exit deadline.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is set to brief national ambassadors on progress on Wednesday afternoon. An EU official said that “talks continued late into the night and will continue today”.
British negotiators in Brussels have been in constant contact with Number 10 to see how far they could go to meet EU demands. One EU official said just before midnight on Tuesday that “important matters” were still unresolved. As well as the customs issue, the EU and UK also need a deal on how to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a say in the post-Brexit arrangements — a key British demand.
Mr Johnson on Tuesday held a series of meetings with Conservative Eurosceptic MPs and the DUP to persuade them to accept a deal that would impose customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.
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In a boost for Mr Johnson, Steve Baker, the head of the hardline Tory European Research Group who helped to vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal on three occasions, emerged from talks in Number 10 to declare: “I am optimistic it is possible to reach a tolerable deal that I am able to vote for.”
Mr Johnson has long identified the European summit as the crunch moment for Brexit negotiations, and failure to achieve a deal by then would leave him forced by UK law to seek a delay to Britain’s scheduled October 31 departure date.
“This is a moment of political leadership: does the UK want Brexit? If so, the EU is ready to conclude a deal,” said one EU official.
Additional reporting by Laura Hughes in London