Prime minister Theresa May on Wednesday stepped up preparations for a Brexit deal by giving cabinet colleagues their first sight of the “95 per cent completed” withdrawal treaty that will take Britain out of the EU next March.
Ministers filed into the Cabinet Office to inspect the text, although it did not include the crucial missing piece of the Brexit agreement — a section about how to avoid the return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic.
However, Mrs May hopes for a breakthrough on the so-called Irish backstop in the next few days, with ministers braced for a cabinet meeting on Saturday or possibly next Monday to sign off a full draft of the withdrawal treaty.
By giving ministers a chance to view the agreed sections of the treaty now, Mrs May hopes to focus political discussions at her next cabinet meeting on agreeing the controversial Irish backstop plan.
Mrs May is also seeking to build support for a deal among EU leaders: on Tuesday she spoke to German chancellor Angela Merkel, and on Wednesday to European Council president Donald Tusk. On Friday she is due to meet French president Emmanuel Macron.
EU diplomats are guarded about the chances of a breakthrough over the coming days. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said he could not “give a date” given the “important issues outstanding”. “There is more work to do,” he added.
But in Brussels preparations are being made on the choreography of handling any provisional agreement, should Britain give its negotiators a clear mandate to close a deal.
A meeting of EU ambassadors was moved from Wednesday to Friday, with diplomats hoping it will be a moment to signal positive developments. This could be a prelude to a final negotiating push at the weekend, with ministers from the UK and the other 27 EU member states asked to assess the provisional text on the withdrawal treaty early next week.
Such a breakthrough would then allow the EU to announce formally a special Brexit summit of the bloc’s leaders in late November to approve the treaty. Mrs May has told her cabinet she wants to seal the deal to allow time for MPs to approve the treaty before Christmas.
In Brussels Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s chief Brexit negotiator, was trying to put the finishing touches to the treaty, including details of the UK-wide customs backstop plan intended to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Environment secretary Michael Gove and other Eurosceptic ministers want assurances that Britain has an escape route from this “temporary” customs union and have demanded to see the full legal advice on the issue from attorney-general Geoffrey Cox.
Mr Cox told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that a “unilateral” escape clause might not be legally practical or politically desirable.
The EU has made it clear Britain cannot have the right to walk away from treaty commitments on the Irish border and is insisting on a joint review mechanism to assess whether the temporary customs deal should come to an end.
Although some ministers have speculated that Mrs May could call a snap cabinet meeting as early as Thursday evening, the prime minister’s allies said it was “very unlikely” and that more work needed to be done.