May faces crunch talks ahead of keynote speech

Theresa May is facing a frenetic 48 hours of Brexit diplomacy as she tries to secure a united Cabinet ahead of crunch talks with European Council president Donald Tusk and a keynote address on the UK's future relationship with the EU.

The Prime Minister called the gathering of her top ministerial team on Thursday to discuss the contents of a major speech she will give on Friday to detail the "end state" withdrawal deal Britain wants to hammer-out with Brussels.

The Cabinet session will be followed by a Downing Street meeting with Mr Tusk after tensions with the EU flared into the open again.

The face-to-face talks come in the wake of Mrs May's firm rejection of parts of a draft legal text from the European Commission regarding the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland which she said would "threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK" by creating a border down the Irish Sea.

With a three week countdown to a key EU summit where the remaining 27 members will decide their Brexit stance, the PM faced a battle on two fronts as pro-Europe Tories launched stinging criticisms of her strategy.

Tory infighting broke to the fore again as former prime minister Sir John Major's call for MPs to have a free vote on the final Brexit deal, with the option of putting it to the public in a second referendum, drew a strong attack from ex-party leader Lord Michael Howard.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk heads to London for talks (Laura Hutton/PA)
President of the European Council Donald Tusk heads to London for talks (Laura Hutton/PA)

Lord Howard compared the remarks to when Sir John faced Tory Eurosceptic rebellions in the 1990s, telling BBC2's Newsnight: "He certainly wasn't very keen on free votes at that time. No question about that."

Referring to Sir John's relationship with Lady Thatcher while he was in Downing Street, Lord Howard said: "I seem to remember that when he was prime minister he was quite upset about the interventions of one of his predecessors. I think it was called back seat driving in those days."

The ex-Tory leader said the Government's position of "ambitious managed divergence" with the EU, which was agreed at a special meeting of the Brexit "war cabinet" sub committee last week, was the best way forward.

He said: "It is realistic because the European Union, at the end of the day, wants a deal. It wants a deal on goods and services because it sells more goods to us than we do to them.

"And they want a deal because they want our money. And without a deal they won't get it."

The draft EU text  put into legal terms the deal reached by the PM and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last December.

On the key issue of the Northern Ireland, it spells out how the principle of "regulatory alignment" would be implemented if the UK fails to find technological or diplomatic solutions to keeping the border with the Irish Republic open.

If such solutions are not found, the draft text states, "the territory of Northern Ireland, excluding the territorial waters of the United Kingdom ... shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the Union".

Leading Brexiteer Sir Bill Cash strongly attacked the EU's stance on Northern Ireland.

He told the BBC: "What they are trying to do is to create a constitutional crisis in the UK. This is basically the EU which is seeking to achieve this hard border."

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