Johnson briefs allies as Brexit talks go to the wire

Updated October 17, 2019

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson briefed his ministers and key lawmakers on Wednesday on details of a Brexit deal taking shape in Brussels, while warning an agreement was still “shrouded in mist”. — AFP/File
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson briefed his ministers and key lawmakers on Wednesday on details of a Brexit deal taking shape in Brussels, while warning an agreement was still “shrouded in mist”. — AFP/File

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson briefed his ministers and key lawmakers on Wednesday on details of a Brexit deal taking shape in Brussels, while warning an agreement was still “shrouded in mist”.

The Conservative leader held a cabinet meeting to update ministers on last-ditch talks to secure a divorce deal on the eve of a two-day meeting of European Union leaders.

Ministers were told there was “a chance of securing a good deal but we are not there yet and there remain outstanding issues”, a Downing Street spokesman said.

Johnson later addressed a meeting of lawmakers from his Conservative party, many whom voted down a previous version of the Brexit deal because it did not deliver a sufficiently clean break with the EU.

Steve Baker, the chairman of the eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs, said from what he had heard from the prime minister that “the deal sounds like it could well be tolerable”.

He said Johnson had assured the meeting that Northern Ireland would remain part of a single customs territory with the rest of the UK — a key issue in the negotiations.

But he told reporters: “Until there’s a legal text, we’re not going to make a decision.” Baker added that Johnson had described the negotiations as if he was “on the Hillary step, on our way up to Everest, but the summit is still shrouded in mist — that was how he put it”.

The Hillary Step was once a near-vertical 12-metre (40-feet) rock face, part of an exposed ridge connecting the south summit of the world’s highest mountain with its true summit. But some of it has fallen away and it is now a gradual snowy slope.

Another leading Brexit supporter, Bernard Jenkin, indicated he would also back the deal taking shape, if it is put to a vote of MPs on Saturday.

“There is very strong support for Boris in the parliamentary party,” he said.

Johnson also held talks earlier with leaders of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — the third such meeting in three days.

The DUP, which props up Johnson’s minority government in parliament, is central to talks about future arrangements for the border between EU member Ireland and British-run Northern Ireland.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said there needed to be a “sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support”.

London, Dublin and Belfast are keen to avoid a hard border given that it could risk reigniting violence between pro-Irish republicans and UK-supporting unionists.

London initially proposed for the entire UK — including Northern Ireland — to leave the EU’s customs union, suggesting there must be customs checks somewhere on goods crossing between north and south.

Brussels has rejected this option and negotiations on a compromise are continuing between all sides.

Johnson is bound by law to ask Brussels for an extension to talks by October 19 if no deal is reached.

MPs will hold their first Saturday session for 37 years this weekend to discuss the next steps.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2019