Jacob Rees-Mogg has sought to soften up Tory Eurosceptic MPs by urging them to accept “compromise will inevitably be needed” in the run-up to a pivotal European Council summit on Thursday at which Boris Johnson hopes to secure agreement for a new Brexit deal.
Mr Rees-Mogg, a leading anti-EU figure, is among the senior ministers trying to sell the British prime minister’s potential new withdrawal agreement to hardline Brexiters.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the leader of the House of Commons insisted Mr Johnson could be trusted because of his role in the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. “As a Leaver Boris can be trusted. He wants to take back control and has dedicated his political career to this noble cause,” he wrote.
UK and EU negotiators are holding talks in Brussels this weekend aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit after breakthrough talks between Mr Johnson and the Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Thursday sparked hopes of an agreement.
Mr Johnson will speak to senior European figures within the next 24 hours to try to drum up support for his deal: European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron. He will repeat his threat to take the UK out of the EU without a deal if no deal is possible — despite the fact that parliament has already voted to force a delay to Brexit in those circumstances.
On Sunday lunchtime Mr Johnson briefed cabinet ministers on the latest state of the talks. A government spokesperson said the prime minister reiterated “that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31”.
Mr Johnson’s team have tabled plans to fudge the most controversial issue dogging the talks: whether Northern Ireland should be part of the EU customs union to avoid the need for a hard border with the Republic.
Officials close to the negotiations say Mr Johnson would keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs territory in legal terms, meaning it would benefit from any free trade deals struck with third countries, but in practical terms it would be part of the EU customs area.
With expectations rising of a deal, on Sunday Michael Creed, a senior member of Mr Varadkar’s cabinet, warned people not to get too carried away.
“There are very significant issues to be addressed here,” the Irish agriculture minister, told RTE on Sunday. “We are not there yet.”
The UK government is also braced for a political backlash from Eurosceptics when the final details of the new plan are made public, risking his chances of getting any new deal with the EU through parliament.
On Saturday Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party, voiced doubts about the idea of a “double customs” plan for Northern Ireland in the first sign of resistance to Mr Johnson’s new Brexit proposals.
Mr Dodds, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, that the DUP would not find any such solution acceptable: “Northern Ireland must remain fully part of the UK customs union. And Boris Johnson knows it very well,” he said. “It cannot work because Northern Ireland has to remain fully part of the UK customs union.”
Mr Rees-Mogg told Sky News on Sunday that the government would wait to see the DUP’s reaction once Britain’s actual proposals are published. “Northern Ireland will remain within the UK customs union, we have been explicit about this,” he said.
Home secretary Priti Patel added in an interview on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that, “The withdrawal agreement was rejected in parliament three times on the basis of the backstop and on the basis that Northern Ireland obviously would be treated differently. That is a situation that is unacceptable.”
Mr Johnson’s proposal to solve the Irish border question is not dissimilar to the previous idea of a “customs partnership” that was criticised by Mr Rees-Mogg at the time as “cretinous” and “a betrayal of good sense”.
On Sunday Mr Rees-Mogg conceded he could have to “eat my own words”, quoting the Winston Churchill aphorism that eating one’s own words could be a “nourishing diet”.
Mr Rees-Mogg also dismissed comments from Dominic Grieve, former Tory attorney-general, who said the government would need to delay Brexit — even if it gets a new deal through the House of Commons — to give parliament sufficient time to scrutinise the withdrawal agreement bill. “The prime minister is absolutely clear that we are leaving on the 31st of October . . . he is not going to Europe to ask for an extension,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.