Boris Johnson is planning to force a new Brexit deal through parliament in just 10 days — including holding late-night and weekend sittings — in a further sign of Downing Street’s determination to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU.
According to Number 10 officials, Mr Johnson’s team has drawn up detailed plans under which the prime minister would secure a deal with the EU at a Brussels summit on October 17-18, before pushing the new withdrawal deal through parliament at breakneck speed.
The pound rose 1.1 per cent against the US dollar to $1.247 on Friday amid growing optimism that Mr Johnson has now decisively shifted away from the prospect of a no-deal exit and is focused on a compromise largely based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.
Officials in Dublin and Brussels say there are signs of movement from Mr Johnson as he searches for a compromise on the Irish backstop, the contentious insurance policy against a return to a hard border in Ireland, although both sides remain far apart.
EU diplomats said that talks on Friday in Brussels between the European Commission and UK negotiators had been more productive than previous meetings.
An EU diplomatic note said that Britain seemed willing to stick with some of what had been agreed by Mrs May to prevent animal health checks at the Irish border, and so keep food and livestock moving freely on the island. The UK is even “considering” keeping Northern Ireland aligned with future EU rule changes, according to the note.
Diplomats cautioned, however, that important points remained unresolved, and that this would be only part of the solution for avoiding a hard Irish border. Britain has also yet to make written proposals and EU officials are worried about the lack of time left to secure any new agreement before the UK’s scheduled departure date of October 31.
On Monday, Mr Johnson will travel to Luxembourg to meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to discuss the prospects for a deal — their first meeting since the Tory leader entered Downing Street in July.
Meanwhile Tory chief whip Mark Spencer has told hardline Eurosceptic rebels they will be thrown out of the party if they reject any deal Mr Johnson negotiates in Brussels.
At the same time Mr Johnson is trying to charm some hardliners, inviting Eurosceptic MPs to Chequers, his country retreat, for drinks on Friday night.
One MP appeared resigned to backing Mr Johnson if he secured a compromise deal: “He hasn’t really got anywhere else to go. Let’s see what he gets in Brussels.”
Nikki da Costa, the prime minister’s head of legislative affairs, has told colleagues she is confident that if a deal emerges from the next European Council, it could be passed into law before October 31.
“Nikki has told us she has a plan to pass a Brexit deal in 10 days flat,” said one senior government official. “Parliament might be sitting every day and night, including the weekend, but she is confident we can leave on October 31 with a deal.”
“It is technically possible to get the necessary legislation through in around 10 days — we have just seen MPs pass a bill in one day in the Commons,” said Maddy Thimont Jack, from the Institute for Government think-tank. She added, however, that “rushing it through in this way means little time for proper scrutiny”.
At their meeting on Monday, Mr Juncker is expected to push Mr Johnson to come forward with a detailed Brexit proposal, warning that time is short and that any solution must protect the all-Ireland economy and the EU’s single market.
“Let’s hope that this is a sign that the time of British Brexit wish-wash is finally coming to an end and that Number 10 is seriously interested in finding a solution,” said one EU diplomat.
Many in Brussels are convinced that the only solution lies in returning to a “Northern Ireland-only” version of the backstop, an idea proposed by the EU in early 2018 but rejected by Mrs May.
That plan would scrap the alternative all-UK customs union with the EU which was rejected three times by MPs, and would require checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist party which supports the Tory government, described as “nonsense” suggestions she would be prepared to accept a border in the Irish Sea, but the party is nevertheless engaging in a search for a compromise.