Attorney-general Geoffrey Cox
Attorney-general Geoffrey Cox © FT Montage/Bloomberg

Theresa May has ordered her ministers to make a push for a Brexit deal this week, ordering her attorney-general Geoffrey Cox to prepare the legal fix that she hopes will finally unlock an agreement.

The prime minister told ministers to be ready to attend another cabinet meeting at the end of this week to approve an outline deal on Britain’s exit treaty, opening the way for a special European Council meeting in late November to sign it off.

Although Downing Street insisted there was “still a significant amount of work to do”, Mrs May told her cabinet she wanted a Brexit agreement in November so that she could seek the approval of MPs before Christmas.

“There were warnings about us having to work through Christmas and how we’d have to start activating “no deal” contingency plans if there wasn’t an agreement by the end of the month,” said one person briefed on Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.

In spite of unrest among Eurosceptic cabinet ministers, Mrs May wants to make a breakthrough in Brussels talks in the next 48 hours and to present the outline of a deal to the cabinet on Friday or possibly Saturday.

Mr Cox, a Brexit supporter, has been asked by Mrs May and Eurosceptic cabinet ministers to come up with a legal text to resolve the outstanding issue of the Irish backstop. Dominic Raab, Brexit secretary, is on standby to travel to Brussels.

At Tuesday’s cabinet Mr Cox offered a series of options to try to bridge the gap between London and Brussels on the backstop, the EU/UK guarantee against a return to a hard border in Northern Ireland.

The EU has signalled it will accept a temporary customs backstop, which would see the entire UK remain in the customs union after a transition deal expires in December 2020; it would stay in place until a trade agreement was agreed.

Mrs May has insisted that this temporary arrangement must not become permanent. “We need a mechanism which ensures we are not in the backstop indefinitely,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.

Mr Raab had demanded that Britain should have a unilateral right to walk away from the backstop, a view supported by Eurosceptics around the cabinet table but rejected by Dublin and Brussels.

Mr Cox set out options intended to reassure the EU that Britain was committed to the backstop, while creating a “review mechanism” involving both sides that would allow the UK to leave under some circumstances.

The attorney-general said that the EU’s willingness to consider a review mechanism — an offer made by Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar to Mrs May on Monday — represented “a major step” forward.

Independent arbitration under consideration

If Britain and the EU can agree this new mechanism, London hopes that the EU will drop its demand for a Northern Ireland-specific “backstop to the backstop”, an ultimate insurance policy against a hard border.

Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, said on Tuesday the Irish backstop must be “all-weather”. He added: “Without an operational backstop there will not be an accord and there will not be a transition period. That is certain.”

While Downing Street and Brussels have played down the prospect of a breakthrough in time for a special November summit, one British official said: “When this happens, it will happen very quickly.”

Eurosceptics are suspicious that Mrs May is attempting to roll her cabinet by stepping up the time pressure for a deal and some insisted that Britain must have a unilateral right to walk away from its commitments on an open Irish border.

Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, Sajid Javid, home secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, international aid secretary, were among those saying that Britain should be able to set its own terms for leaving the backstop.

But Greg Clark, business secretary, said Britain should be wary of wanting a unilateral exit clause in any event, saying it could be used by the EU to throw Britain out of a temporary customs union with harmful consequences to business.

It was seen as significant by Mrs May’s supporters that Eurosceptic ministers did not appear to be prepared to fight to the end to secure a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop and there were no resignation threats.

However Michael Gove, environment secretary, said the cabinet should be shown Mr Cox’s full legal advice on the backstop and not just the summary being offered by the prime minister.

There was also some concern among Eurosceptics that the proposed “UK-wide customs backstop” would include “level playing field” provisions to stop Britain undercutting the EU on issues such as state aid, the environment and labour laws.

Chris Grayling, transport secretary, said this started to look like membership of the EU single market. Under this proposal, Northern Ireland would also have a closer regulatory relationship with the EU.

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