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Prime minister asks cabinet to ‘stand together and stand firm’ day before crucial EU summit
Theresa May has won the backing of the cabinet for her Brexit negotiating strategy after a two-and-half-hour discussion that centred on concerns about when the UK could leave any customs backstop it signed up to as part of the EU divorce deal.
The prime minister called for political unity after the lengthy meeting, during which all cabinet members spoke, telling them a day before a crucial European summit that “if we as a government stand together and stand firm, we can achieve this”.
Her official spokesman said cabinet members had agreed the UK “cannot be kept in the backstop indefinitely” and ministers had discussed “the need for a mechanism to clearly define how that backstop will end”.
But the spokesman would not be drawn on what mechanism was being considered and whether individual cabinet members had pressed May to insist upon having a specific date by which any backstop agreement would terminate.
Cabinet members had been urged to rebel against the prime minister’s strategy by the former Brexit secretary David Davis over the weekend, but there was no immediate sign that May was put under any serious pressure at the meeting.
No 10 said nobody present had threatened to resign, leaving the prime minister free to ask EU leaders on Wednesday night for their help in kickstarting the stalled negotiations.
May is to address EU leaders before they retire to discuss Brexit without her over dinner in Brussels, and is hoping they unblock the impasse by agreeing to negotiate further on the backstop in the run-up to an emergency summit in November.
Cabinet members including Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, have privately said the UK should insist on a firm date for ending the backstop. Some fear it could be used to keep the country in a form of customs union indefinitely.
Similar concerns were voiced by Conservative Brexiters in the Commons on Monday, when May updated MPs on the status of the Brexit negotiations, with the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith asking the prime minister: “How long does she think this temporary arrangement might last and, most importantly, who would make the final decision on when it ends?”
No 10 said cabinet members also endorsed May’s call to “maintain the integrity of the union” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which the prime minister had told the Tuesday morning meeting was under threat by the EU’s proposed version of the backstop.
The spokesman said the prime minister had told her political colleagues it was “not possible for her or any UK prime minister to sign up to an arrangement that would lead to a custom border down the Irish Sea”.
A backstop is required to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland if a comprehensive free-trade deal cannot be signed before the end of 2020. May has suggested to the EU that the whole of the UK would remain in the customs union after Brexit, but Brussels has said it needs more time to evaluate the proposal.
As a result, the EU is continuing to insist on having its own backstop, which would mean Northern Ireland remaining in the single market and customs union in the absence of a free-trade agreement, prompting fierce objections from Tory hard Brexiters and the Democratic Unionist party, which props up her government.
The shadow Brexit minister, Jenny Chapman, said: “With two days until a crucial EU summit, it is simply extraordinary that the cabinet can’t agree what its plan for Brexit is. If the cabinet can’t make a decision on Brexit, then what on earth is the point of it? Theresa May is in office, not in power.”