Theresa May has been put on notice by her allies in the Democratic Unionist Party to change course on Brexit or risk the collapse of her government.
DUP leader Arlene Foster warned ministers they “could not in good conscience” proceed with plans believed to have been agreed between EU and UK negotiators to beef up regulators checks between Northern Ireland and Britain.
It came as Mrs May’s ‘inner cabinet’ was briefed last night on plans for a no-deal Brexit amid reports that progress ahead of a crucial EU summit next week had been slower than hoped.
In Brussels, a spokesman for the European Commission dampened speculation about a breakthrough, saying “we’re not there yet”.
The deal believed to be on the table involves keeping the whole UK in an ‘arrangement’ that effectively preserves the existing EU customs union, ensuring the goods continue to move freely over the Irish land border regardless of the future trade relationship between London and Brussels. Brussels has rejected any time limit to this ‘backstop’ to maintain the status quo at the border, prompting anger from Brexiteers who believe the plan would keep the UK in limbo under EU trading rules.
In addition, Northern Ireland would remain under large parts of single market regulations, requiring enhanced checks on products arriving from Britain, particularly agricultural goods.
In a statement issued last night, Ms Foster effectively ruled out the plan, describing it as “not the best of both worlds”, but the “worst of one world”.
Blasting the proposed deal, she said: “Trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland would be in danger of restriction. “Indeed, Northern Ireland’s access to any new UK trade deals would also be regulated by Brussels.” She added: “The Prime Minister is a Unionist. Many of her cabinet colleagues have assured me of their Unionism.
“Therefore, they could not in good conscience recommend a deal which places a trade barrier on UK businesses.”
A senior DUP MP said a Commons vote on Wednesday night that saw the party abstain on a piece of legislation for the first time since signing a pact to keep the Conservatives in power was a “warning” to the Government.
Sammy Wilson said: “It was a way of reminding the government that while our vote wasn’t important last night, it would be important some time in the future and we would have no hesitation withholding it if we thought that was a necessary sanction to impose.
“It was a warning: ‘Don’t take us for granted, we’re in an agreement with you, but it’s a two-sided agreement.”
A meeting between the UK Government and devolved administration was meanwhile witness to “heated exchanges” over Brexit and migration policy.
The SNP’s constitutional relations secretary Michael Russell said he underlined the need to stay in the EU single market to preserve Scotland’s £104 billion services industry.