Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay has held “constructive” talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels after the chance of a breakthrough on securing a withdrawal deal appeared to rise.
EU Council president Donald Tusk said the UK had still not delivered anything “workable” but there were “promising signals”. It follows Boris Johnson’s meeting with his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar after which both leaders declared they could see a “pathway” to a possible deal.
It comes as details of private Tory polling emerges showing Mr Johnson cannot get a Commons majority unless he delivers Brexit by 31 October. Leaving after Halloween – with or without a deal – would leave him more than a dozen MPs short after a general election.
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So are we heading for the “tunnel” or not? Leo Varadkar suggests it’s not unlikely. If that makes sense.
“I think at this stage probably the less said the better,” Varadkar said, speaking to reporters in Dublin on Friday morning.
“The focus today very much switches to Brussels where Secretary Barclay is going to meet with Michel Barnier and I’d anticipate that will lead to some more detailed proposals being made, and the possible talks to enter the proverbial tunnel, but that’s kind of where things stand today.”
The UK side also calling the meeting between Stephen Barclay and Michel Barnier “constructive”, according to our Europe correspondent Jon Stone.
Michel Barnier has spoken to reporters and has compared the task of finding a Brexit deal to climbing a mountain.
Speaking in Brussels, the EU negotiator said: “We have had a constructive meeting with Steve Barclay and the British team and now I am ready to debrief the 27 ambassadors and the Brexit steering group of the parliament.
“But as already said, Brexit is like climbing a mountain. We need vigilance, determination and patience.”
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told a Brussels press briefing: “What I can say from our side is that Michel Barnier had a constructive meeting this morning with Steve Barclay.
“And now he will debrief the EU27 ambassadors… and also inform the Brexit steering group accordingly.”
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is expected to brief the “EU27” group of ambassadors on his discussions with Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay at around 11.30am.
There’s usually always leaks coming out of that meeting, so we might get a sense very soon whether the UK and EU are headed for the “tunnel” of intense negotiations – or whether there’s nothing workable to negotiate.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt shared the image of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s daughter Gabriella being reunited with her father, adding that the government must “redouble efforts to bring Nazanin home”.
Ireland’s finance minister Paschal Donohoe said he was hopeful talks between the chief Brexit negotiators of the European Union and Britain would yield a positive outcome on Friday.
“What happened yesterday was a positive discussion but the real detail discussion will begin now and that will be in Brussels,” Donohoe told Ireland’s Newstalk station, referring to Thursday’s meeting between the leaders of Britain and Ireland.
“Hopefully the meeting and the process today will be positive.”
Donald Tusk has had more to say this morning. Speaking in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, he said: “Unfortunately we are still in a situation in which the UK has not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal.
“A week ago I told prime minister Johnson that if there was no such proposal by today I would announce publicly there are no more chances, because of objective reasons, for a deal during the coming EU Council.
“However yesterday when the Irish Taoiseach and the UK PM met they both saw for the first time a pathway to a deal. I have received promising signals from the Taoiseach that a deal is still possible.
“Technical talks are taking place in Brussels as we speak. Of course there’s no guarantee of success and the time is practically up but even the slightest chance must be used. A no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the EU.”
Oh dear. EU Council president Donald Tusk has tweeted. And it’s not great. Despite “promising signals”, he says the UK has still not come up with anything workable
Well. The talks have finished, according to our Europe correspondent. We may hear soon if both sides are heading for the “tunnel” of intense negotiations ahead of next week’s EU leaders’ summit.
Boris Johnson has put out a feisty video claiming people are getting “fed up” with Brexit. There’s a strange moment where he blames “politicians … us”, pointing to himself, before turning his attention to parliament.
Labour MP Peter Kyle, leading supporter of a People’s Vote campaign, has said there are “reasons to be sceptical” Boris Johnson is serious about getting a deal.
Speaking in advance of a briefing he and Phil Wilson MP are giving at the Foreign Press Association today, Kyle said: “There are still reasons to be sceptical that Boris Johnson is serious about trying to get a Brexit deal.
“There are even better reasons to be worried about any deal Boris Johnson agrees. That’s because the Brexit he wants to force on Britain will open the door to an attack on workers’ rights, on health and safety and on environmental protection
“That is why, if Europe’s leaders cut a deal with Johnson, they must build in time for such a deal to be approved in a confirmatory referendum by all the people of the UK.
“Understandably, they do not want to interfere in our domestic politics. But a prime minister who has yet to win a single vote in the House of Commons cannot be allowed to get away with presenting the choice as leaving with his shoddy deal on 31 October or crashing out with No Deal on that date.”
In other news this morning, The Independent has been told that Labour MPs are blitzing the leadership with calls demanding Jeremy Corbyn throws his weight behind a fresh Brexit referendum before agreeing to a general election.
The whips’ office has received “dozens of phone calls” from backbenchers worried about going to the polls before Brexit is resolved.
The guessing game continues. Even the photos offer contradictory clues.
Remarks made by the Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith on the idea of Brexit veto are causing a bit of a stir.
“What I’m committing to is that we are not going to have one party having a veto over any element of this situation,” Smith told BBC Northern Ireland.
The Leave.EU group said on Twitter that it seemed like Boris Johnson had “blinked” in conceding that the DUP wouldn’t get a veto on the border arrangements established under any Brexit agreement.
But according to the BBC’s Iain Watson, No 10 sources have suggested Julian Smith hadn’t been briefed on the detail of the Johnson-Varadkar discussions when he suggested the veto wouldn’t be down to the DUP.
Tory MP Nigel Evans said members of the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) could vote for concessions on Northern Ireland, so long as the DUP was in favour.
“I think it is very difficult to get it through without the DUP, but we have seen a shift from the DUP already,” he said. “And if the DUP are in favour of it, it’d be very difficult for the ERG to go against.”
Evans said the ERG had not been briefed on the exchanges between Boris Johnson and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar.
He would not rule out backing a deal even if it involved a customs border down the Irish Sea – something the DUP has made clear it would be unhappy with.
“We’re going to look at the detail – none of us know,” he said. “I believe it is three dimensional poker and we’re playing very high risk stakes here.”
Wait a minute. Isn’t three dimensional poker simply … poker?
Robert Peston says there’s a “striking degree of optimism” around this morning … yet both sides are claiming the other has offered a concession.
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay has arrived for talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier. They’re expected to talk for around two hours.
Could it be Boris Johnson’s apparent desperation for a deal may have something to do with election polling?
According to The Telegraph, the Tories have seen a ComRes study showing Johnson cannot get a majority unless Brexit happens by 31 October.
Leaving with a deal by the end of this month would give him a whopping majority of 118 after an election, the pollster predicts.
Leaving after 31 October – with or without a deal – would leave him more than a dozen MPs short of a majority.
It seems the British people may actually have taken all his “get Brexit done” and “do or die” rhetoric seriously.
The flipside for opposition leaders is that they have a strong incentive to make sure Brexit happens after 31 October.
Andrew Hawkins, chairman of Comres, told a deal by Halloween is “the doomsday scenario as far as the Opposition are concerned, and it would appear that they are aware of the maths.”
So what did Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar discuss, exactly? The Irish Times suggests there has been some movement from the British side, with the Irish side apparently given some encouragement that customs checks could be moved away from the north-south border to the Irish Sea.
But of course, it wouldn’t be the first time suggestions made by Johnson were “over-interpreted”.
While the Irish Times’ political editor Pat Leahy talked up “significant movement” from British side, others have suggested No 10 thinks little has changed – and no concession has been offered on customs.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has been asked about what Boris Johnson and Leo Vardkar discussed yesterday, and whether the British side had offered concessions.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether there was a possibility of a deal, Williamson said: “I think that what we saw yesterday is that pathway start to emerge where we can get a deal that works for both the UK and the EU, yes.”
Pressed repeatedly on whether the cabinet had been briefed on the prime minister’s discussions with the Irish premier, he eventually replied: “I had a very nice briefing this morning – it was very much appreciated.”
“The prime minister has always been consistent that he wants to get a deal, but not at any cost. But what he’s been absolutely determined to do is to ensure exit on 31 October.”
Asked whether there had been an offer on customs proposals to solve the Brexit impasse, Williamson said: “It doesn’t benefit anyone to have a running commentary on live negotiations.
“These are confidential negotiations, and the only way you are going to see an agreement emerge is by ensuring people have space to carry on those negotiation.”