Theresa May briefed her inner cabinet on Thursday evening that a historic Brexit deal is close, as Downing Street faced a backlash from Tory Eurosceptics who fear it could leave Britain locked in a customs union with the EU for ever.

The British prime minister convened her closest colleagues to discuss the outline of an EU withdrawal treaty that could threaten the survival of her government, with Democratic Unionist MPs — who prop up her minority government — threatening to vote it down.

Two Eurosceptic cabinet ministers were said to be on the verge of quitting and MPs were fuming that Mrs May was ready to sign up to a “backstop” plan under which the whole of the UK would stay in a “temporary” customs union, but without an end date.

Meanwhile, the DUP has threatened to pull the plug on her minority government because of Britain’s acceptance that Northern Ireland should remain part of the EU’s single market regulatory area under the backstop plan.

The European Commission said on Thursday there was “no breakthrough yet”, but rumours swept Westminster that Mrs May’s negotiating team in Brussels — led by the civil servant Olly Robbins— was close to a breakthrough.

One official close to the Brexit talks said: “The prime minister never brings the cabinet together to tell them what’s going on. That’s not her style. It feels to me like the deal is practically done.”

The prime minister never brings the cabinet together to tell them what’s going on. That’s not her style. It feels to me like the deal is practically done

Cabinet ministers briefed on the talks said the vexed issue of the Irish backstop — the last outstanding issue in negotiations on an exit withdrawal treaty — was close to being settled.

Mrs May has signalled she can accept demands by Brussels that Northern Ireland remain part of the single market during the period of a backstop — the treaty guarantee that there would be no return to a physical border in Ireland.

That would mean checks on industrial goods and other products travelling from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, although Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, insisted these would be minimal.

The DUP strongly opposes the plan.

Mr Barnier is set to agree Britain’s demand for the backstop to include references to a customs union to the whole UK, which would avoid a customs border in the Irish Sea while a more comprehensive UK-EU trade agreement is completed.

Mrs May has accepted that there should be no firm end date to the backstop, although language will be found to say that it will be a temporary arrangement with “a clear pathway” to a final trade deal, intended to create frictionless trade.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said: “It is worth remembering that income tax was introduced as a temporary measure. Without an end date, we could be in the customs union forever.”

Two Eurosceptic cabinet ministers — Andrea Leadsom, leader of the Commons, and Esther McVey, work and pensions secretary — are opposed to the plan. Tory officials speculated they could quit.

Neither of the two ministers was invited to the “inner cabinet” convened by Mrs May last night, to their intense frustration. Ms McVey repeatedly refused to endorse the prime minister’s Brexit strategy in an interview yesterday.

One official close to Eurosceptic cabinet ministers said of Mrs Leadsom and Ms McVey: “They are going to talk a lot over the weekend and consider what they will live with and what they will walk over.”

However, Mrs May is expecting support from her inner cabinet, which includes two prominent Brexiters: environment secretary Michael Gove and Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. The inner team also includes chancellor Philip Hammond, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, and business secretary Greg Clark.

One of the biggest challenges for negotiators is squaring the EU insistence that the backstop lasts for as long as necessary with UK demands that it be “finite” and “temporary”.

Officials on both sides have explored options to show that the customs union backstop would expire once a more comprehensive agreement was in place. This could be tied to an agreed timetable for reaching agreements.

London also wants to ensure the EU could not lock the UK in a customs union by insisting the backstop remained necessary even when a trade deal is agreed.

Negotiators have discussed setting objective criteria to make a decision on ending the backstop. However, senior EU diplomats say that could only inform a decision that would ultimately be taken jointly by the EU and UK.



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