Some ministers and civil servants had expected the Prime Minister to call a meeting of her senior team to sign off a deal today.
But it is understood there is now ‘zero’ chance of Cabinet gathering before the weekend.
The delay comes amid bitter wrangling over the details of a proposed compromise on the Irish border ‘backstop’ – the final stumbling block in the fraught talks with the EU.
The two sides are believed to be on the brink of a breakthrough on the issue, with some sources adamant that agreement has already been reached between the negotiating teams in Brussels. The backstop is intended to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and would only come into effect if no wider trade agreement is sealed by the end of a mooted transition period in December 2020.
But Eurosceptics are anxious that it would effectively end up as the default position, leaving the UK permanently stuck in a customs union with the EU and unable to strike trade deals elsewhere.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, an eminent QC and Brexiteer who has emerged as a key player in the drama, boosted Mrs May at a Cabinet meeting earlier this week by suggesting a ‘review’ clause on the backstop could be an effective escape route.
Irish border backstop mechanism is the final hurdle in divorce talks
The Brexit divorce negotiations have boiled down to the issue of the Irish border.
Brussels had initially demanded that Northern Ireland stays within its jurisdiction for customs and most single market rules to avoid a hard border.
But Mrs May flatly rejected the idea, saying she would not agree to anything that risked splitting the UK. Instead, the government has mooted a temporary customs union for the whole UK, and accepted the need for extra regulatory checks in the Irish Sea.
Brussels has also given ground, and now appears to be prepared to sign off a UK-wide backstop in the divorce deal.
That leaves the mechanism for ending the backstop as the final hurdle to overcome – but the two sides have different views.
Dominic Raab has been arguing that the UK should be able to scrap the backstop arrangements by giving three to six months’ notice.
That would assuage Eurosceptic fears that the country could end up being trapped in an inferior customs union indefinitely, unless the EU gives permission for it to stop or a wider trade deal is sealed.
For its part, the EU has been adamant that the backstop must offer an ‘all-weather’ solution to the Irish border issue and stay in place ‘unless and until’ it is superseded by other arrangements.
The bloc has already effectively killed off calls for a hard end date to the backstop – and No10 is now convinced that a simple unilateral notice period will not unlock the talks.
Mrs May and Irish PM Leo Varadkar have discussed a ‘review mechanism’ for the backstop, which could involve an independent arbitration body assessing whether the terms were being honoured and if the arrangement should be ended.
Potentially this could provide a solution that allows Mrs May to say the backstop would not go on for ever.
But the devil will be in the detail, and ministers are keen to ensure there are ‘robust’ ways for the UK to escape.
But ministers including Michael Gove have demanded to be shown full legal advice before signing off the plan.
Senior figures including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab had previously been pushing for the UK to be able to scrap the backstop unilaterally with a three-six month notice period – but the EU has said it will never agree to such a mechanism.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling also voiced concerns about accepting EU rules on state aid, workers’ rights and the environment, according to The Times. He suggested they could mean staying in the single market ‘by the back door’.
Both Labour and the Democratic Unionists, whose party props up the Government, have gone further by demanding the legal advice is made public.
They received backing today from former Cabinet minister David Davis.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has threatened to force the Government’s hand in Parliament.
Downing Street is resisting the demands pointing out the constitutional principle is not to comment on private legal advice.
The row broke out as ministers were finally given access to the current text of the withdrawal agreement – minus the section on the Irish border.
Described as ‘95 per cent complete’, the agreement covers the divorce bill, rights of EU nationals living in the UK and other issues.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s chief whip, said publishing the advice would be in the public interest. ‘It’s because it affects the whole UK, therefore it shouldn’t just be the DUP that sees this advice, or the Government,’ he said.
‘If the House of Commons is going to have a meaningful vote on a deal that includes, and upon which this legal advice is very, very important, then I think people are entitled to know what that advice is.’
Sir Keir, who spent yesterday in Brussels for discussions with EU officials, warned of the dangers of a so-called ‘blind Brexit’ where the details on future relations are unclear. He warned Labour was preparing to vote down any proposal if the accompanying document outlining the future relationship lacked detail.
On the legal advice, he said: ‘That legal advice should be made available to Parliament when we come to vote on a deal. We need the position, we need to know precisely what advice has been given.
‘I hope the Government has the good sense to realise that this is so important that it makes it available in Parliament for us to see.
‘If they don’t then obviously we’ll have to think about what devices, what procedures, we can use to force them to do so.
‘My invitation to the PM is, given the importance of the backstop, given the binding nature of the treaty that Parliament is going to have to look at, it is right that this advice is disclosed at the appropriate time so MPs can see it.’ He added: ‘The concern is that the future relationship with the EU will become a vague description, a vague document that is essentially a blind Brexit.
‘We’re here to deliver the message and to discuss the fact it is not acceptable to expect the Labour party or any parliamentarian to vote for a blind Brexit.’
Mrs May yesterday phoned European Council president Donald Tusk to push for an agreement. She spoke to German chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday evening.
Sir Keir Starmer (pictured in Brussels for talks today) upped the ante by insisting Parliament must be told exactly what the future trade relationship will look like
What happens if Theresa May manages to get a Brexit deal?
EU Negotiator Michel Barnier (right) and EU Council President Donald Tusk (left) are key players in the Brexit process
If Theresa May manages to overcome the final hurdle in divorce negotiations with the EU and get Cabinet approval for a deal, it is far from the end of the story.
Here is how events could develop once a draft agreement is reached.
Emergency EU Summit, Brussels, late November
If the divorce package is agreed between the two sides, it will need to be signed off by EU leaders.
EU council president Donald Tusk will convene a summit where formal approval will be given.
But UK sources expect that at this stage the package will not be fully formed, as the political declaration on the shape of future trade relations will not be complete.
While a rough draft of the declaration will be included, it will not be fleshed out until potentially weeks later. That could happen at a summit due on December 13-14.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) is still a crucial figure in the Brexit drama
The so-called ‘meaningful vote’ in the UK Parliament, December 2019
Assuming there is a withdrawal treaty and political declaration, the next stage is for the action is in the UK Parliament.
Mrs May promised Tory Remain rebels a ‘meaningful’ vote on the final deal in both the Commons and Lords.
The government wants this to be a simple yes or no vote on what she has negotiated – although both Remainers and Brexiteers have vowed to try to put down amendments.
This will be a high stakes moment. Brexiteers do not want to sign off the divorce bill without a satisfactory trade deal and Remainers are reluctant to vote for a blind Brexit.
But the Prime Minister insists it is deal or no deal: accept what she has negotiated or leave Britain crashing out on March 29, 2019 with no agreement in place.
If the meaningful vote is passed, there will be a series of further votes as the withdrawal treaty is written into British law.
The Prime Minister (pictured at the EU Council in June) has made clear the UK will leave without a deal if MPs reject her package
Ratification in the EU, February 2019
After the meaningful vote in the UK, the EU will have to ratify the agreement. This is a two stage process.
National parliaments in all 27 countries have to vote on the deal. It does not need to pass everywhere but must be carried in at least 20 of the 27 countries, with Yes votes covering at least 65 per cent of the EU population.
The European Parliament must also vote in favour of the deal. It has a representative in the talks, Guy Verhofstadt, who has repeatedly warned the deal must serve the EU’s interests.
In practice, once the leaders of the 27 member states have agreed a deal, ratification on the EU side should be assured.
Exit day, March 29, 2019
At 11pm on March 29, 2019, Britain will cease to be a member of the European Union, two years after triggering Article 50 and almost three years after the referendum.
Exit happens at 11pm because it must happen on EU time.
If the transition deal is in place, little will change immediately – people will travel in the same way as today and goods will cross the border normally.
But Britain’s MEPs will no longer sit in the European Parliament and British ministers will no longer take part in EU meetings.
Negotiations will continue to turn the political agreement on the future partnership into legal text that will eventually become a second treaty. Both sides will build new customs and immigration controls in line with what this says.
Transition ends, December 2020
The UK’s position will undergo a more dramatic change at the end of December 2020, when the ‘standstill’ transition is due to finish.
If the negotiations on a future trade deal are complete, that could come into force.
But if they are still not complete the Irish border ‘backstop’ plan could be triggered.
Under current thinking, that means the UK staying in the EU customs union and more regulatory checks between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
Eurosceptics fear this arrangement will prevent the country striking trade deals elsewhere, and could effectively last for ever, as Brussels will have no incentive to negotiate a replacement deal.