Boris Johnson acknowledges ‘outstanding issues’ ahead of crucial Brexit summit

Boris Johnson has acknowledged that “outstanding issues” to get a Brexit deal remain on the final day before the crucial EU summit, but said there was still a “chance” of success.

Officials on both sides of the Channel said on Wednesday that numerous obstacles still needed to be surmounted for a fresh agreement to be brokered.

The Prime Minister needs to get a deal approved at the summit of EU leaders starting in Brussels on Thursday if he is to avoid an almighty clash over asking for a delay to the UK’s departure.

His official spokesman said the Prime Minister had on Wednesday afternoon updated his Cabinet, which gave its “full support” to get a deal ahead of the summit after a “positive discussion”.

“He said there was a chance of securing a good deal but we are not there yet and there remain outstanding issues,” the spokesman added.

Earlier in the day, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay confirmed that Mr Johnson will write a letter asking for an Article 50 extension if no deal is in place by Saturday, something the Prime Minister has repeatedly ruled out.

Talks in Brussels resumed on Wednesday morning after running into the early hours.

After a briefing by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, EU commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “Talks have been constructive but there still remains a number of significant issues to resolve.”

Public opinion of government's Brexit negotiations
(PA Graphics)

European Council president Donald Tusk reportedly told Poland’s TVN 24 news channel that “everything should be clear” by midnight.

DUP leader Arlene Foster quickly moved to reject a suggestion that her party had accepted the latest proposal on consent.

She tweeted: “Discussions continue. Needs to be a sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support.”

'EU sources' are talking nonsense. Discussions continue. Needs to be a sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support. https://t.co/CpugVBfyBZ

— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) October 16, 2019

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was “confident” a deal could be struck by the current deadline and raised the prospect of another EU summit being held in the coming weeks.

But he warned there were still numerous hurdles in the way, after speaking with Mr Johnson and the European Commission on Wednesday morning.

“There is a pathway to a possible deal but there are many issues that still need to be resolved, particularly around the consent mechanism and issues around customs and VAT,” he said.

“Although time is running short, I am confident these objectives can be achieved.”

And Saturday is a key date for the Prime Minister, with the Benn Act passed by MPs trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit stating he must write to Brussels asking for a delay if Parliament does not agree to a deal by then.

Mr Barclay was questioned by the legislation’s namesake, Labour’s Hilary Benn, when appearing at the Exiting the European Union Committee of MPs.

The Brexit Secretary reiterated that the Prime Minister would write to Brussels asking for an Article 50 extension, as previously revealed in documents submitted during a Scottish court challenge.

“I can confirm, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly set out, that firstly the Government will comply with the law, and secondly it will comply with undertakings given to the court in respect of the law,” he said.

Mr Barclay confirmed that the Government “will abide by” what is set out in that letter, following fears the Prime Minister could try to scupper an extension with a second contradictory letter or request to a member state to block an extension.

Countdown to leaving the EU
(PA Graphics)

The Cabinet minister reiterated the Government’s commitment to leave the EU on the current October 31 deadline, despite the act demanding a delay to the end of January if MPs do not approve a deal by Saturday.

If Mr Johnson succeeded in bringing a deal home to the UK, he would then face a battle to do what Theresa May failed to do three times and get it approved by Parliament.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was “deeply concerned” about the negotiations and ruled out his party backing a deal under Mr Johnson’s reported terms.

The DUP’s MPs and their influence over the Tories are key in swinging any vote Mr Johnson’s way, and he was to meet them for the third time in as many days on Wednesday afternoon.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he believed an agreement could be accepted by MPs
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he believed an agreement could be accepted by MPs (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Talks between the Prime Minister’s team and hardline Brexiteers from the European Research Group (ERG) were also expected to continue.

ERG chairman and self-styled “Brexit hardman” Steve Baker earlier said he was “optimistic” that Mr Johnson’s team would finalise a “tolerable deal that I will be able to vote for”.

But a split among the hardliners became visible over reports that Mr Johnson may agree to a customs border down the Irish Sea, a move former environment secretary Owen Paterson said would be “unacceptable”.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader and a former ERG chair, believes an agreement could be accepted by MPs, telling LBC radio: “I think the votes are there now for a deal.”

The DUP has helped prop up the Tory administration following increased funding from Mr Johnson’s predecessor in Number 10 as part of a confidence and supply deal, in a £1 billion package branded a “bribe”.

There is speculation that more money could be headed in the direction of Ms Foster’s party as the Prime Minister tries to get them on board with any concessions.

The DUP were decidedly lukewarm on the mooted proposals in a statement after their second audience with the Prime Minister in as many days, with a spokesman saying “gaps remain and further work is required”.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said DUP backing would be influential for his colleagues.

“There will be quite a lot of Tory MPs who will take their line from what the DUP do,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Pressure to sign off on a draft agreement is peaking. A legal text needs to be published ahead of the summit if the EU27 are to consider ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement at the two-day summit.

Their approval would allow Mr Johnson to put the deal to MPs in a proposed extraordinary sitting of Parliament on Saturday, between 9.30am and 2pm.

The Government was to table a motion on Wednesday to ask Parliament to back the sitting, the first on a Saturday for 37 years.

During the weekend session, MPs would be able to back or reject any deal presented to them, or discuss what to do next in the Brexit saga.

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