Theresa May scrambling as DUP say deal is a '˜unionist nightmare'
Critics claim the Prime Minister is “threatening the constitutional integrity of the UK” after it emerged the government is ready to agree a text committing to “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, prompting calls for Scotland, Wales and London to stay in the EU single market. During a meeting in Brussels between Mrs May and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to finalise the deal, a leak of a draft agreement prompted an angry response from the DUP that threw the final stage of divorce talks into disarray.
In a hastily convened press conference in Belfast, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “We have been very clear. Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.
“We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom.” Mrs May is understood to have left her meeting with Mr Juncker for a phonecall with the DUP leader, whose party’s ten MPs keep the minority Conservative government in power.
After the call, Mr Juncker announced in a joint press conference that a breakthrough had not been reached.
The Prime Minister is now expected to return to Brussels tomorrow, giving her just over 24 hours to shore up her alliance with the DUP and convince her own MPs.
At Westminster, the border compromise was called “a unionist nightmare” by DUP MP Sammy Wilson, and after Conservative MPs were briefed by the Downing Street chief of staff, backbencher Anna Soubry suggested it would be “a gift for the SNP” if Northern Ireland was given a separate Brexit deal.
Nicola Sturgeon said there was “no good practical reason” for Scotland to be denied a similar deal to stay in the EU single market, a call echoed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones.
Ms Sturgeon was accused by Scottish Conservatives of “weaponising Brexit” in a bid to advance the case for independence.
Mrs May and Mr Juncker said it was still possible for a deal to be agreed before a 14 December EU summit which will formally decide whether talks can move on to trade.
In Dublin, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed the deal had been agreed by Ireland, the UK and the EU, and said he was “surprised and disappointed” that the text not been signed off in Brussels, but added that he was willing to give Mrs May more time.
“While I welcome the proposed commitment for Ireland and Northern Ireland – and while the particular circumstances in Scotland are distinct and separate from those in Ireland – today’s developments show very clearly that if one part of UK can retain regulatory alignment with the EU and effectively stay in the single market, there is no good practical reason why others cannot do the same,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“Indeed, any special status for Northern Ireland would make a similar solution for Scotland even more vital.
“For Scotland to find itself outside the single market, while Northern Ireland effectively stays in would place us at a double disadvantage when it comes to jobs and investment.”
The First Minister called on the UK government to look again at Scottish proposals setting out the SNP’s case for the UK to stay in the single market and customs union, or for Scotland to get its own Brexit deal.
Scottish Conservative MP John Lamont accused Ms Sturgeon of trying to “leverage another independence vote”.
“It is disappointing – but not surprising – that Nicola Sturgeon has once again tried to weaponise Brexit to further her obsession with independence,” he said.
“If Nicola Sturgeon is trying to further her constitutional goal by creating different regimes on either side of the border, then she is selling Scotland short.”
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat former Scottish Secretary, said the Prime Minister risks undermining the Union.
“Yet again the Tories are threatening the constitutional integrity of the UK by putting their party interest ahead of the national interest,” Mr Carmichael said.
“David Cameron did it in 2014 and Theresa May is doing it now because she is in hock to the DUP.
“The answer on the issue of the Irish border is for the UK to stay in the customs union. Cutting piecemeal deals will help no one and will only feed the SNP grievance machine.”
The Irish government has been demanding new commitments from the UK that Brexit would not see a return to a ‘hard border’, with customs checks at the roughly 275 crossing points along the 310-mile frontier between the Republic and the north.
In a brief appearance before the cameras after their meeting, both Mrs May and Mr Juncker insisted that their talks – which extended from lunch into the late afternoon - had been “constructive”.
Mr Juncker said: “We now have a common understanding on most relevant issues, with just two or three open for discussion.
“These will require further consultation, further negotiation and further discussions ... but I have to say that we were narrowing our positions to a huge extent.”
And Mrs May said: “We have been negotiating hard. And a lot of progress has been made. And on many of the issues there is a common understanding.
“And it is clear, crucially, that we want to move forward together.
“But on a couple of issues some differences do remain which require further negotiation and consultation.”
Jeremy Corbyn said the failure to clear the deadlock in Brexit talks was the “grubby deal” betwen the DUP and the Conservatives.
“It is disappointing that there has not been progress in the Brexit negotiations after months of delays and grandstanding,” the Labour leader said.
“Labour has been clear from the outset that we need a jobs first Brexit deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom.
“Each passing day provides further evidence that Theresa May’s Government is completely ill-equipped to negotiate a successful Brexit deal for our country.”