Boris Johnson’s chances of agreeing a last-gasp Brexit deal with the EU hang in the balance amid reports he is ready to make key concessions on the Irish border that has put an agreement within reach.
The Prime Minister is in a race against time to get a fresh agreement negotiated in time for the Brussels summit of European leaders starting on Thursday.
Mr Johnson, who has staked his premiership on achieving Brexit on 31 October “come what may”, was told by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier earlier today he has until midnight tonight to come up with a new proposal.
According to the Guardian, by Tuesday evening senior sources on both sides of the Channel had said a draft treaty could be published on Wednesday morning after the UK agreed in principle to a customs border in the Irish Sea.
However, one German official has reportedly warned that the proposed solution to the Irish border was so complicated Brexit would need to be delayed regardless of any deal being reaching in the coming hours. According to The Times, Germany has said this could push Brexit back to next year.
The Democratic Unionist Party - a key ally of Mr Johnson’s whose support he will likely rely on to get any deal approved in London - has given news of the concessions a lukewarm response.
When asked if the party would support a border in the Irish Sea, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “No, we must remain within the UK’s customs union. It is a principle we have and that will forever be there. We have to be integrally within the UK.”
The PM’s official spokesman responded to the reports, saying: “Talks remain constructive but there is more work still to do.” A EU official also stressed “talks are ongoing”.
The reported agreement would be similar to one previously rejected by Theresa May, who said in February 2018 it would undermine the constitutional integrity of the UK and that "no prime minister could ever agree" to it.
In a meeting of the 27 EU member states on Tuesday morning, Mr Barnier said the latest British proposals on a departure deal were not yet good enough.
Specifically, a “big gap” still existed over the issue of customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The revised deal reportedly proposed by Mr Johnson makes significantly concessions towards this. It would mean that while Northern Ireland would legally remain within the UK’s customs territory, checks would actually take place either side of the Irish Sea between the province and mainland Britain.
Speaking before arriving at a meeting of EU27 ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday morning, Mr Barnier said work to secure a deal had been “intense”.
Bloomberg reported that Mr Barnier told ministers during the meeting: “Not all that the UK has been saying in the last days is totally unacceptable.
“They have moved in our direction on key points and that’s why I think we still can make significant progress today.”
Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney raised some hopes by saying "a deal is possible", maybe even this week, but stressed: “We're not there yet".
And Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it remained uncertain whether a deal would be ready in time for the Brussels summit.
“The initial indications (from the EU) are that we are making progress, negotiations are moving in the right direction,” he told reporters.
“But whether we will be able to conclude a revised Withdrawal Agreement, which is an international treaty, in time for the summit, that’s as of now unclear.”
Mr Varadkar also revealed that the PM told him during their meeting last week he was “confident” he would be able to do what Theresa May thrice failed to do by getting a deal through the House of Commons.
However, according to HuffPost UK, the DUP has said it will not support any deal in which Mr Johnson has been forced to make further concessions. This would make it incredibly difficult for the Prime Minister to get any deal approved by MPs.
The race is on to finalise the deal before Thursday’s crunch summit of European leaders.
Mr Barnier provided optimism that an agreement can be reached on Tuesday morning, saying that "even if an agreement will be difficult, more and more difficult to be frank, it is still possible this week”.
He added: "Reaching an agreement is still possible. Obviously any agreement must work for everyone, the whole of the United Kingdom and the whole of the European Union.
"Let me add also that it is high time to turn good intentions into a legal text."
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said a deal was still "very possible".
Currently, Mr Johnson would be compelled by the Benn Act to send a letter requesting an extension from the EU instead of leaving without a deal.
Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack claimed the Prime Minister could be hoping European leaders will "sympathise" with him and veto any Brexit deal deadline extension so the UK leaves the EU by October 31.
Mr Jack said if the prime minister was facing a choice between breaking his promise to leave by Halloween and breaking the law over asking for an extension, EU leaders could decide "enough is enough" and refuse to extend Article 50.
Explaining that it has been made "very clear" to Mr Johnson that the law states he must write a letter requesting an extension if he fails to get a deal, Mr Jack suggested that he may get sympathy from European countries who may "feel that it's unfair" to prevent the prime minister having a no-deal Brexit.
Asked about Mr Johnson's comments that leaving the EU by October 31 was "do or die", Mr Jack said: "He can make it very clear that he doesn't want to ask for that extension, that he's being forced to ask for that extension and some European leaders may sympathise with him on that and feel that it's unfair that he should have to do something he doesn't want to do.
"If one of our European partners decides - and it could well be the French president - to use his veto and decides enough is enough, in that situation we would be leaving."