Boris Johnson’s hopes of a Brexit deal at today’s EU summit were in tatters today after the DUP branded the package unacceptable.
After days of frantic negotiations, the unionists issued a stinging public rebuke, saying they ‘cannot support’ the concessions he has made on customs and consent of the Northern Irish people.
Dealing another hammer blow to the fledgling blueprint, they also condemned a ‘lack of clarity’ on whether EU VAT rates will apply in the province.
Last night ministers had claimed that a deal was ‘fingertip close’ after frantic negotiations.
With the prospect of an agreement in Brussels looking dead, Mr Johnson now faces the humiliating prospect of waiting while EU leaders discuss how long an extension they will offer to his ‘do or die’ Halloween Brexit date.
A Remainer rebel law means that the PM is obliged to beg for a delay until at least January if he has not agreed a settlement by Saturday.
Mr Johnson has insisted he will never ask for the date to be pushed back – but Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay made clear yesterday that he will obey the controversial legislation.
Pro-EU MPs are also plotting to force a second referendum at an extraordinary ‘Super Saturday’ Commons sitting this weekend, as the premier’s strategy threatens to descend into chaos.
The statement from DUP leader, Arlene Foster, and deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said: ‘We have been involved in ongoing discussions with the Government.
‘As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues, and there is a lack of clarity on VAT.
DUP leaders Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds are pictured in Westminster yesterday
The party issued a statement in the early hours of this morning saying they could not support the current Brexit deal proposed by Boris Johnson
‘We will continue to work with the Government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.’
The pound fell 0.5 per cent against the dollar and the euro within minutes of the announcement. A pound was worth 1.2759 dollars and 1.1525 euros.
Last night Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told ambassadors that an agreement had basically been reached – with the possibility of a formal sign-off today.
It was then up to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to convince the DUP of his plans, before putting it all to a vote in Parliament on Saturday following further discussions with EU leaders.
Mr Johnson remained confident, suggesting at Cabinet yesterday afternoon that he still hoped the DUP could be won over.
He also told a gathering of Tory MPs last night that the government was on the ‘Hillary Step’ about to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
He insisted: ‘If it is not possible to achieve a deal we will still leave the EU on October 31.’
Boris Johnson departs the back of Downing Street to attend a 1922 backbench committee meeting in Parliament yesterday. He has teed up a massive ‘Super Saturday’ showdown with MPs as his hopes of a Brexit deal look to be crumbling amid DUP opposition
And he later even compared his intense negotiations to that of a prisoner in The Shawshank Redemption – in which the hero escapes a jail by wading through a tunnel of waste.
Downing Street confirmed the government will now table a motion for the Commons to sit on Saturday – the first Saturday sitting since the Falklands War.
If there is a deal at the summit today MPs will be asked to approve it on Saturday, but if not Mr Johnson is expected to stage a vote on whether to delay Brexit or go for No Deal.
Remainers are also preparing a bid to force a second referendum, as the struggle for the country’s future intensifies.
Amid desperate efforts to win over the DUP – whose 10 MPs are seen as critical to unlocking a Parliamentary majority for a deal – there are hotly denied claims that billions of pounds more funding for Northern Ireland is on the table as a sweetener.
Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, leaves Downing Street amid desperate talks to get a Brexit deal finalised ahead of an EU summit in Brussels today
ERG members (second from left to right) Mark Francois, Steve Baker, Iain Duncan Smith and Bill Cash leave Downing Street following last minute talks to try and secure a Brexit deal
Leader Arlene Foster was in No10 for more talks yesterday afternoon, but she dismissed afterwards EU claims reported by Irish broadcaster RTE that she had given in on key issues.
She tweeted: ‘Discussions continue. Needs to be a sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support.’
One Cabinet minister told MailOnline there was ‘guarded optimism’ over the chances of getting the DUP on board but they insisted the government is preparing to fight to get Brexit done by October 31 if a resolution cannot be found.
‘We will be ready if the DUP can’t be won over,’ they said.
It comes as chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, Steve Baker, said that ‘great progress’ has been made in talks with Number 10 last night.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcome European Commission president-elect Ursula Von der Leyen after a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting in Toulouse, France yesterday. Macron had been optimistic yesterday evening as he said he wanted ‘to believe that a deal is being finalised’
He said: ‘We know there will be compromises, but we will be looking at this deal in minute detail, with a view to supporting it.
‘But until we get that text, we can’t say.’
He added however, that the ERG ‘can’t support deal without seeing text’.
‘We really must see the text in time to read it in order to vote on Saturday,’ he said.
‘Time is becoming very short for everyone now. As Michel Barnier famously said, ‘the clock is ticking’.
‘We need to get through this (European) Council, have the text of the deal, have the implementing legislation ready, and we need to be voting on that on Saturday.’
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier looked to be feeling the pace yesterday as he attending meetings in Brussels
What are the sticking points in the Brexit talks?
Last week Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar came up with the principles of a new blueprint that brought Brexit talks back from the dead.
However, while both sides are now entertaining the idea that a deal could be possible, significant sticking points remain.
Customs checks: Mr Johnson’s proposed way forward is thought to involve Northern Ireland leaving the EU’s customs union along with the rest of the UK.
However, the bloc’s tariffs would be collected on goods heading to the province from mainland Britain in a so-called ‘customs partnership’ so that they are all EU compliant when they arrive on the island of Ireland.
If those goods then stayed in Northern Ireland – and within the UK – then the business receiving them would be eligible for a rebate on the EU tariff charged.
The EU is concerned about the complexity of the plan, the potential for smuggling, and whether technology exists to implement it.
Problems have also emerged over VAT, thought to be technical issues over how and when it is collected.
The DUP is also eager to ensure that there is no legal border in the Irish Sea.
Northern Irish Consent: The two sides are thought to have come up with a democratic consent mechanism for Northern Ireland to give the assembly a say on what should happen with border arrangements in the future.
However, they have hit problems on the technical feasibility of the proposals amid concerns that the offer made by the UK would effectively give the DUP a veto.
A compromise is believed to be in the works, but seems to have infuriated the unionists.
The party’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said: ‘UK & EU negotiators, who have ad nauseam pontificated about the need to respect the (Good Friday) Agreement, have no business interfering in the processes for consent as currently set out.’
Fears PM’s plan is basically the same as one considered by Theresa May: The customs partnership model which Mr Johnson is believed to have offered the EU is broadly based on proposals previously explored by Mrs May. Those proposals were dismissed at the time as being too difficult to implement.
There are also concerns that they will effectively mean Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK – a red line for the DUP and hardline Brexiteers.