May’s team claim to find flexibility in DUP demand for legal guarantees for no checks ever in the Irish Sea

This is a running story ..

Latest at 22.53
The FT leads with  DUP puts May on notice over Brexit backstop
Arlene Foster tweeted defiantly:

Meeting with Prime Minister just ended. NO border in the Irish Sea will ever be acceptable to unionists throughout the UK . . . regulatory or otherwise.

Government sources claim there must be just enough wriggle room created by new time limits. But are they deceiving themselves  once again?

From the FT story

For some months, Mrs May’s team have indicated to the EU that they will propose measures that could bind Northern Ireland to the bloc’s standards on goods, if other attempts to avoid a hard border failed, so ensuring there would be no need for checks on north-south trade.

Mrs May’s team remain confident that the government’s solution to the backstop will be enough to address the DUP’s main concerns. One cabinet minister noted the carefully worded DUP objections still left space for a deal.  Nigel Dodds, the deputy DUP leader, laid out conditions for accepting a backstop, saying: “It can’t be forever, it must be time limited, it must be finite. It cannot bind Northern Ireland into arrangements that the rest of the United Kingdom is not tied up to.”

To meet such concerns, Mrs May has focused on ensuring the backstop includes UK-wide arrangements that could temporarily keep Britain in what would be, in effect, a common customs territory with the EU. By contrast, only Northern Ireland would be directly bound by EU regulations. British negotiators are looking to revise parts of the UK’s original proposal — called the Temporary Customs Arrangement — to try to overcome Brussels’ objections to its legality and workability.  Mrs May’s allies say that Britain might stay in a “temporary” customs union for “a few months” after the end of a transition deal in January 2021, in the event that a final Brexit trade deal had not been ratified or if more time were needed to allow new technology to be deployed.  Some cabinet ministers admit such an extension might last for “several years”, curtailing Britain’s ability to strike trade deals into the 2020s. 

Downing Street sees a planned EU-UK statement on future relations as an essential final element to a deal on the backstop, arguing that an ambitious declaration would allow Mrs May to claim the backstop was an insurance policy that will not be needed.  But Mr Dodds insisted that the statement be “crystal clear and not a fudge”. “We won’t settle for any kind of vague outline of a future relationship in exchange for being legally tied into an internationally binding backstop,” he said. “That simply isn’t going to happen.”

As predicted the DUP leaders Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds went into a meeting with Theresa May this afternoon breathing sound and fury. unsettled at reports that the prime minister is about to propose a “grand bargain” which would keep Britain tied to European customs rules on goods after the transition period ends in December 2020.  ” Britain would also accept demands that goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain must meet European standards, with the potential for checks in the Irish Sea.”

Nigel Dodds, the leader of the DUP in the House of Commons, said the party would vote against May if she returned from Brussels with a deal that involved new checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain.

“We will vote against it. We will vote for our red lines,” he told the Guardian.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, had earlier said the party’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives was “party to party” and not with May herself.

Dodds said the DUP was not afraid to take action if the prime minister betrayed the party by going back on her promise that Northern Ireland would not be left with different trading and customs arrangements from Britain.

“In Northern Ireland we’ve grown up with a lot of fears and issues that we’ve faced, frankly being afraid of what Theresa May may do is not one of my biggest fears,” he said.

After a presentation at a fringe event at the Tory party conference in Birmingham, he made clear the party was not intending to abandon its confidence and supply agreement but that it would not prop up a prime minister that left Northern Ireland “semi-detached” from the UK.

He said the party would not be fobbed off with guarantees in a political deal between the EU and the UK that would accompany any Brexit deal.

“The deal on the future relationship will have to be crystal clear and not a fudge, we won’t settle for any vague outline of a future relationship in exchange for a backstop, that is simply not going to happen,” he said.

His remarks will dash hopes that delicate ongoing talks over a compromise on the Irish border could be hammered out before the next EU summit later this month.

Foster had earlier openly spoken about the possibility of working with Boris Johnson, in a clear signal to May that she could not take their support for granted.

“Theresa May understands very well that we are not bluffing on this issue … there is far too much at stake for us as unionists, but also economically for Northern Ireland,” she told the Guardian.

If they bring Theresa May’s house down, it’s hard to see where else the DUP will find a safe billet. Plenty of Brexiteers see the border problem as  a case of the tail wagging the dog. And while they’ll connive with the DUP against Chequers, many will part company with the DUP if they hold out for no checks of any kind and go on to  frustrate  the alternative Canada free trade deal. Mrs May opposes  this  because it would kick in the backstop – about which the Brexiteers appear  to be in denial . Confused?  Join the club.

The Institute of Economic Affairs’ border solution, supported by Rees Mogg’s European Research Group, is still perilously light on detail. But even it does not rule out checks in GB entirely  and away from the Irish border.

Plan A+ puts forward a new approach to a backstop for Northern Ireland that would allow the Withdrawal Agreement to be concluded on the basis of a framework for a free trade agreement for the whole of the UK and the EU. In effect, the parties would agree an optimal framework of a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA), including advanced customs cooperation, service provisions and regulatory coherence, to be set out in principle in the Withdrawal Agreement and finalised during the transition period.

The backstop that would come into effect if such agreement were not be concluded by the end of the transition period would be a basic FTA, focused on goods and customs cooperation, and a commitment by the UK and the EU to deploy best practice and the necessary resources to provide for all customs clearance activity to take place away from the border.

For Boris Johnson in his barnstorming speech this afternoon it was a simple matter of scrapping the backstop

Now therefore is the time truly to take back control and make the elegant dignified and grateful exit the country voted for. This is the moment – and there is time – to chuck Chequers …… to scrap the commission’s constitutionally abominable Northern Ireland backstop, to use the otherwise redundant and miserable “implementation period” to the end of 2020 to negotiate the super-Canada FTA, to invest in all the customs procedures that may be needed to ensure continued frictionless trade, and to prepare much more vigorously for a WTO deal.

Mrs May has just admitted  she’s  cross at Boris, claiming ; ” he would tear up our guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland”,  still unspecified  but part of the  Chequers plan,  a point she will have no doubt made to Mrs Foster and Mr Dodds.

There was enough in Johnson’s earlier Telegraph article plus the IEA’s border solution  to attract the condemnation of EU Commission vice-president, Frans Timmermans, in an explicit rejection of the IEA border plan .

“It is central to our responsibility to do as little harm as possible in these negotiations,” Timmermans said. “And to just brush it aside in London is completely irresponsible.”

The commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “When it comes to the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, we are sticking to the point of view that we have expressed so many times: Ireland first.”

These remarks may further inflame the situation by  implying  that the EU Commission is a more responsible protector of  the peace process in Northern Ireland  than sections of the Conservative party and the DUP.

How serious are the DUP’s threats?   Arch remainer Scotland’s First minister Nicola Sturgeon says

I suspect this is a far more significant development today than the latest Boris Johnson circus.

And from ITV Pol Ed Robert Peston:

If you read my blog or watched my vlog yesterday, you will know @DUPleader is here ripping up @theresa_may’s compromise for Irish backstop, on which any Brexit deal will rest. May will be asking herself how on earth she avoids no-deal Brexit 

How will May deal with this?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London