Theresa May is facing a dramatic cabinet showdown with David Davis, the Brexit secretary, over the government’s final backstop plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.
As the inner cabinet meets at Downing Street to thrash out the final details of the customs fall-back plan, Davis is expected to push for a firm end date to be included in the agreed text.
Davis did not rule out resigning if the government’s proposals did not have his explicit approval. “That’s a question I think for the prime minister, to be honest,” he told reporters after a speech at the Royal United Services Institute.
It leaves the prime minister battling to restore cabinet unity over her customs plans before she flies to Canada later today for the G7 meeting of world leaders.
The clash with Davis came as Downing Street also attempted to head off a series of damaging rebellions in next week’s key Brexit votes, by holding talks with leading Tory MPs who voted to remain in the EU.
May has publicly committed to a time-limited backstop, but No 10 sources ruled out agreeing to a specific date in the text, suggesting that it would be unworkable.
Cabinet sources confirmed that a four-page draft of the backstop proposal circulated to ministers had prompted the fresh row because it did not include a legally enforceable date.
Just hours later Davis claimed that discussions over the document were still carrying on. “The detail of this is being discussed at the moment,” he told reporters during a Q&A after his Whitehall speech. “It has been through one cabinet committee, is going to another one, and it would be improper of me to pre-empt the negotiation. But I suspect it will be fairly decisive tomorrow.”
He added: “I think the prime minister has already made public the fact that we expect to put a time-limit on the backstop proposal.”
Davis helped to clinch agreement on the backstop in the cabinet Brexit subcommitee last month, in the face of objections from other leave supporters, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Johnson subsequently warned that the prime minister should ensure she delivered a Brexit deal that avoided use of the backstop. “Brexiters fearing betrayal over the customs backstop must understand that the PM has been very clear that it is not an outcome we desire. We want a deal with the EU and she will deliver it,” he said.
Davis is understood to believe that offering a deal without a specified end-date would limit his leverage, in talks with Brussels, to negotiate alternative arrangements for keeping the border open.
Britain signed up to the idea of a backstop in the deal reached with the EU27 in December but May rejected a draft later presented by Brussels that would in effect keep Northern Ireland in the single market.
The EU27 has been waiting for the government to publish its alternative draft backstop proposal, which is expected to include all of the UK temporarily applying the EU’s external tariff – a plan that would limit the ability of the trade secretary, Liam Fox, to strike new deals with non-EU countries.
No 10 sources said the backstop, which would keep the whole of the UK in key areas of the customs union until a permanent solution to the Irish border problem could be found, would be published today after the meeting.
Downing Street played down the row, saying the backstop was only ever intended to be temporary. “It’s important that it’s time-limited even outside of the fact that we don’t expect or want it to happen,” a source said.
Allies of the Brexit secretary denied he was considering resigning.
When news of the backstop plan emerged last month it infuriated hardline Conservative backbenchers who feared that it could become the post-Brexit norm.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory backbenchers, went so far as to question whether the government remained committed to delivering Brexit.
Leading Brexiters told the Guardian, however, that they would not be “causing a fuss” about the backstop before next week’s Commons votes. But one warned that No 10 should expect renewed pressure over the date once votes were passed.
The Tory chief whip, Julian Smith, told MPs that the EU withdrawal bill would now be debated over two days – next Tuesday and Wednesday – but there would still only be 12 hours set aside.
A series of Tory rebel remain MPs, including Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, and Antoinette Sandbach, were seen entering No 10 for talks.
The latest clash between May and her Brexit secretary comes after the pair also disagreed about the timing of publication for a white paper setting out key areas of the government’s Brexit plans.
Davis was keen to produce a detailed document before the European council at the end of June, but May is more cautious. She refused to give an answer, when asked by Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions, when it would be published.
After his speech, Davis said: “In debates in Whitehall between fast and slow, I normally vote for fast. That’s probably a given. But what she said today is exactly right – that the white paper will be published when it’s ready, it’s up to quality, and is exactly what we need to say. It will not delay the progress of the negotiations.”
Any plan that involves a special status for Northern Ireland is anathema to May’s allies in the Democratic Unionist party, who reject the idea of any differential in treatment between the region and the rest of the UK.