Did Arlene Foster have the last laugh on a knife-edge day?

It was a knife-edge day of fresh shirts, Shawshank jokes and tortuous talks that see-sawed between hope and despair – but did DUP leader Arlene Foster have the last laugh?

  • Before the 1922 Committee, Johnson compared Brexit talks to climbing Everest
  • Prime Minister said: ‘We are not quite at the summit, we are at the Hillary Step’ 
  • It was typical Boris – both summarising his predicament and raising a laugh
  • But the day was difficult for the PM, as he tasted the intransigence of the DUP

Addressing the Cabinet today, Boris Johnson reached for a vivid cinematic reference to describe the state of the Brexit negotiations.

‘It’s a bit like The Shawshank Redemption. We’re in the tunnel,’ he said – using the EU’s term for the final, intense phase of the talks.

In the 1994 film, a prisoner crawls through a rancid mile-long sewage tunnel before finally tasting freedom.

Later, before the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, he compared the talks to climbing Everest, saying: ‘We are not quite at the summit, we are at the Hillary Step. The summit is not far but at the moment it is still shrouded in cloud.’

It was typical Boris – both summarising his predicament and raising a laugh, even when the chips are down.

But however easy he found it to make light of the situation, today was a difficult day for the Prime Minister, and the first time he has tasted the intransigence of the DUP.

Today was a difficult day for the Prime Minister, and the first time he has tasted the intransigence of the DUP (pictured, leader Arlene Foster)

It was Mr Johnson’s (pictured) hopes of doing a deal which were scuppered by the Northern Irish party saying ‘No, No, No’

Infamously, Theresa May had to pull out of December 2017 talks with Jean-Claude Juncker to take an hour-long call from a furious Arlene Foster, the DUP leader.

May could be forgiven for a wry smile at his predicament. One MP joked that she was probably ‘doing cartwheels down the corridor’ watching him suffer.

Poll: Most voters want deal

Most Britons who have an opinion on Brexit say they are still in favour of leaving the EU – but only with a deal, a survey has found.

Once ‘don’t knows’ are excluded, more than half of the public (54 per cent) want to see the Brexit referendum result honoured.

But the Comres poll of 26,000 adults – the biggest since the referendum – found most of those who want to leave would oppose a No Deal Brexit. The result of the poll, commissioned by Channel 5 and ITN, is a surprise because most recent surveys have found Remain narrowly ahead. It revealed the public is also against holding a second referendum.

A YouGov poll showed Boris Johnson is the most popular choice for PM (43 per cent) – even among young people and the working classes. Conservative MP Michael Fabricant said: ‘The desire to leave is hardening.’

For today, it was her successor whose hopes of doing a deal were scuppered by the Northern Irish party saying ‘No, No, No’.

Late on Tuesday night, in the Berlaymont, the European Commission’s 13-storey Brussels headquarters, there was still optimism a deal could be done. On the fifth floor, the lights were still on as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s midnight deadline to agree a deal came and went.

After refuelling on sandwiches and pasta salad late in the evening, the negotiating teams, split between multiple rooms to cover more ground, persevered until 1.30am before calling it quits.

At one point a junior UK official was sent out to buy a bag load of white shirts for diplomats on the UK side who were running out of fresh clothes.

Mr Johnson’s chief negotiator David Frost, who leads a team of 25 officials, retired to the British ambassador’s opulent residence on Rue Ducale, but was back in the building at 9am, in one of the fresh shirts.

The negotiations resumed, Frost shuttling between the Commission and the UK Embassy, but to the dismay of the UK side – and despite the Commission briefing to the contrary – there was no Eureka! moment.

Late on Tuesday night, in the Berlaymont, the European Commission’s 13-storey Brussels headquarters, there was still optimism a deal could be done. On the fifth floor, the lights were still on as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s (pictured) midnight deadline to agree a deal came and went

By mid-morning, it was clear why. Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds entered No 10 for talks with the PM by the back door, via the Cabinet office on Whitehall. They weren’t saying much, but a few hundred yards away in the House of Commons, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson spelled out the party’s demands when he erupted at Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay at a committee hearing.

The deal as it stands would mean Northern Ireland staying in parts of the single market and – in effect – accepting a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This represents a huge compromise for the unionist party.

Q&A

Why does the PM need the DUP?

With a Commons majority of minus 45, Boris Johnson needs all the help he can get to push a deal through. The DUP has just ten MPs. But, crucially, Tory members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group have suggested they will not support any deal unless the DUP is happy.

Why is the DUP holding out?

The unionist party insists that any withdrawal from the EU must not affect the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is why it was against Theresa May’s backstop, which it said effectively gave Dublin a veto over Ulster leaving the EU. If a general election is around the corner, as expected, the DUP will be keen to be seen to be sticking to its red lines as closely as possible to avoid losing seats to rival parties.

Has it given any ground?

Few details of the talks have leaked out. However, it is understood that the DUP might be prepared to accept Mr Johnson’s controversial proposals for a customs border down the Irish Sea. This would mean that while Northern Ireland remains in the UK customs zone in theory, it would also be in the EU customs zone because checks would take place at ports on the Irish Sea.

What is the stumbling block?

THE DUP will only sign up to the deal if it contains a ‘consent mechanism’ for Northern Ireland. The party wants an injection of democracy into the process with the Stormont Assembly allowed to sign off the new arrangements. Mr Johnson proposed a vote in advance and one every four years, but this has gone down badly in Brussels and Dublin because they fear that it would give unionists a rolling veto.

Is money an issue?

THE DUP has been adept at prising out extra cash for Northern Ireland in return for helping the Conservatives – it got money out of Mrs May to prop up her government after the disastrous 2017 election in which she lost her majority. It is believed the unionist party may be trying to get more cash in return for signing up to the deal.

Could UK ministers make concessions?

LABOUR MP Stella Creasy claimed last night that in an attempt to get an EU deal through, ministers had offered to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly a vote on whether to legalise abortion in the province. That would overturn a vote in Westminster that took place in the summer.

Are there splits in the DUP?

IT appears so. While some more moderate members would consider concessions to allow a deal to be done, others – including Westminster leader Nigel Dodds – are holding out. Another DUP MP, Sammy Wilson, said today that failing to allow a consent mechanism would breach the Good Friday Agreement.

What they want, Wilson barked, was ‘cross-community consent’ for the proposal, something he said was required under the Good Friday Agreement. What this means is a vote, or multiple votes, in Stormont, to approve the deal.

The Cabinet meeting was called in the hope Johnson would be able to brief ministers on a deal, but none was available.

While staying upbeat, and delivering his Shawshank Redemption line, he told them: ‘There’s a chance of securing a good deal but we are not there yet.’

Back in Brussels, the EU had other ideas. The anonymous ‘EU sources’ who have enraged No 10 for the past three years, were ‘at it again’, one senior source told me. They briefed friendly journalists that a deal was done. A ‘technical agreement’ had been reached, and the DUP were onside. This was seen in No 10 as a blatant attempt to bounce Mr Johnson into accepting the agreement as it stood. And only hardened the DUP’s resolve.

The source said: ‘The EU haven’t helped with endless babbling about a deal having been done. That briefing was phenomenally unhelpful. People read that stuff and it makes it harder to get this thing over the line.’ Barnier’s deadline slipped and slipped. Due to brief member states at 2pm on the deal, that was pushed back to 5pm and then 7pm. At 4.30pm, Johnson did a five-minute turn at the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, with nothing to announce.

But the Shawshank line went down well. ‘He’s saying he’s up to his eyeballs in s*** but not to give up’, said one MP. Tory MP Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the European Research Group of Brexiteers, said: ‘It was vintage Boris Johnson. It was enthusiastic. It was uplifting. It was positive.’

Some Cabinet ministers are also upbeat about the deal. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told Cabinet: ‘Last time we were in the seventh circle of hell; this time I’m in an airy villa with a lovely view.’

Yet last night in No 10, the mood was downcast. Johnson’s proposal for a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly to approve the deal, and one every four years thereafter, hasn’t survived contact with Brussels. It’s far from clear what he can extract from the EU that the DUP will accept. And the grim truth is that without their support, he can’t get his deal through, and there’s little point even turning up to today’s EU Council summit.

In the absence of a deal, the looming deadline set by the Benn Act will force him, on Saturday, to ditch his ‘come what may, do or die’ pledge and delay Brexit. He’s riding high in the polls, but after an extension? Will Leave voters blame the MPs who agreed the ‘Surrender Act’ or will they blame him?

Privately, Mr Johnson’s most senior advisers haven’t given up hope. Perhaps they’re right to, and he will emerge odorous but victorious.

Or perhaps they should be reading another line from Shawshank, delivered by hard-bitten lag Red, played by Morgan Freeman: ‘Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.’

Super Saturday’s on the brink: Boris urges MPs to back the first weekend sitting since Falklands

by John Stevens, deputy political editor 

Boris Johnson last night tabled plans for a ‘super Saturday’ Parliamentary sitting to get a Brexit deal through the Commons – even as rebel MPs threatened to wreck his hopes.

The Government laid a motion for both Houses of Parliament to sit from 9.30am until 2pm on Saturday, which will be voted on by MPs today.

Should the motion pass, the Commons will sit on Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War in 1982. 

The Prime Minister hopes to use the session for MPs to debate – and pass – any Brexit deal he brings back from this week’s crunch Brussels summit.

But yesterday, ringleaders of the 21 MPs who recently had the Conservative whip removed said their support for a deal would be conditional on Mr Johnson first seeking an extension beyond October 31 – or backing a second referendum. 

They are said to be concerned that hardline members of the European Research Group could double-cross the Government by backing a Withdrawal Agreement but then withdrawing their support and voting against the actual legislation needed to implement it.

They also don’t believe there is enough time left before October 31 to pass the laws required.

It makes it even more difficult for the Prime Minister to get the numbers he needs to get a deal through the Commons, as Theresa May failed to do three times.

It makes it even more difficult for the Prime Minister to get the numbers he needs to get a deal through the Commons, as Theresa May (pictured) failed to do three times

Last night, the leader of the Independent Group for Change, former Conservative MP Anna Soubry, hinted at opposition to Saturday’s debate. 

She said: ‘It is increasingly clear Johnson’s “new” deal is worse than May’s. Parliament will get five hours’ debate on Saturday without any independent assessments, analysis or select committee scrutiny of the most important set of decisions we will make in generations. That’s plain wrong.’

If Britain and the EU cannot finalise the legal text of a deal before Saturday, it is possible MPs could be asked to hold an ‘indicative vote’ on the outline of the plan – to prove the Prime Minister can command the support of the Commons.

An EU source last night claimed European leaders could even refuse to sign off on a new deal until the Prime Minister shows he can make the arithmetic work among MPs.

Remarkably, it has even been suggested that opposition MPs might vote down the motion for the Saturday sitting. 

The so-called Benn Act passed by MPs trying to prevent No Deal states the Prime Minister must write to Brussels asking for an extension if Parliament does not agree to a deal by Saturday.

One Cabinet minister said MPs could block the Saturday sitting.

The minister said: ‘There are a lot of MPs who claim they want a delay because they want to prevent No Deal, but actually they just want to stop Brexit altogether. 

They just do not want to admit that publicly because they fear a backlash from their constituents.

‘MPs could stop us having a vote on a deal on Saturday because they fear it will pass, and they know without one the Prime Minister will have to ask for an extension. That is one step towards their goal of blocking Brexit entirely.’

Former Tory Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt said it would be ‘pretty blooming amazing’ if anyone voted against the motion for the Saturday session.

Yesterday, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay told MPs that Mr Johnson would comply with the Benn Act by writing a letter to Brussels asking for a delay if a deal was not approved by Saturday, following fears the PM could try to scupper an extension with a second contradictory letter or ask a member state to block an extension.

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