European Union says there has been ‘no breakthrough’ in Brexit talks

Theresa May

The British government brushed off a threat Thursday by its Northern Irish allies to withdraw their support if it compromises too much on Brexit, amid reports of progress in negotiations with the European Union.

A day earlier, the DUP had said it was prepared to vote down the budget if the prime minister in their eyes conceded too much ground to Brussels in the European Union talks, risking an abrupt end to the confidence and supply agreement that has kept May in Downing Street since the 2017 election in which the Tories lost their overall majority.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has warned Theresa May she can not "in good conscience" recommend a Brexit deal which keeps Northern Ireland in the customs union.

Full cabinet members concerned about the idea of an indefinite backstop include Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, and Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, who refused to specifically endorse May's Chequers blueprint for Brexit earlier on Thursday - although she insisted that she was "completely supportive of the prime minister".

The de-facto Deputy Prime Minister was pressed on the DUP's support when he appeared on ITV's Peston on Wednesday night. Many of her cabinet colleagues have assured me of their Unionism.

EU leaders are due to meet for dinner in Brussels next Wednesday and hope to agree a withdrawal treaty with Britain that Barnier said was 80-85 per cent ready but on which obstacles remain, notably on how to keep the new EU-UK land border with Northern Ireland from reviving conflict in the British province.

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Such an arrangement would all but end May's chances of securing free trade deals with other countries.

The EU chief negotiator accepted new administrative procedures for goods travelling between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain would be "politically sensitive" but he noted: "Brexit was not our choice; it is the choice of the United Kingdom".

But he said that checks on animals and animal food products passing between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would have to increase tenfold.

He suggested all 10 DUP MPs could vote down this month's budget to "pull the government back into keeping its promises".

While talks with Brussels have intensified since May emerged from her infighting Conservative party conference last week, there has been no breakthrough.

For customs and VAT, Barnier said, "we propose using the existing customs procedures to avoid doing checks at the transit points".

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