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Theresa May headed for Brussels on Monday confident she was close to a Brexit deal, but returned to London with no agreement and facing crisis talks with the Northern Ireland unionists who keep her in power.
Some Conservative MPs, meanwhile, who have tolerated a series of concessions by the prime minister to Brussels during Brexit talks, were dismayed at what they saw as her mishandling of the sensitive situation in Northern Ireland.
Mrs May’s efforts to resolve Irish concerns about the north-south border may have satisfied Dublin, but they appeared to blindside Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist party leader, who in effect blocked the plan.
At the start of the day Tory officials privately insisted that Ms Foster was happy with a diplomatic fudge that recognised the need for some “regulatory alignment” between north and south. The UK government says such a guarantee would only be required in the event of a “no deal” Brexit.
“We have the same interests as the DUP,” said one Tory official. “You can take it as read we will have discussed this with them.” The DUP’s ten MPs prop up Mrs May’s minority government and are closely consulted on all government policy.
But alarm bells started ringing at lunchtime on Monday as details began to emerge of the diplomatic language being drafted to paper over differences between London and Dublin over the future of the border.
David Trimble, an architect of the Good Friday agreement and former leader of the Ulster Unionist party, said the deal taking shape in Brussels would lock Northern Ireland companies into EU regulations and harm their competitiveness.
Asked on the BBC’s World at One if he was shocked about reports that there would be “regulatory alignment” on both sides of the border in Ireland, he said: “I am. This is potentially very bad news for Northern Ireland, if it happens.”
Mrs May had by this point only just begun her lunch in Brussels with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, which was intended to put the finishing touches to a Brexit divorce deal ahead of next week’s EU summit.
But when Mrs May broke off from the lunch to telephone Ms Foster, it became clear that the DUP leader had either not been fully briefed about what Mrs May had in mind — or had been unable to take her party with her.
Gavin Williamson, the former government chief whip who negotiated the “supply and confidence” parliamentary deal with the DUP keeping Mrs May in power has now moved to the defence department, removing from the scene the unionists’ main point man on the Tory side.
One Eurosceptic Conservative MP described the day’s events as “quite inexplicable”, “bloody amateur” and “embarrassing”. “Possibly the most worrying thing about today is the lack of political savvy,” he said. “You’re seeing the limitations of Theresa May.”
The MP said he did not think the likes of foreign secretary Boris Johnson or environment secretary Michael Gove stepped into the debate. “I don’t think Boris or Michael had time to intervene. It all happened so quickly,” he said.
Anna Soubry, former business minister, questioned the lack of consultation by Mrs May: “The peculiarity seems that Arlene Foster was only involved towards the end of things.”
Mrs May’s aides refused to comment on what was said during the phone call but did not deny that Ms Foster had in effect blocked the agreement on the north-south border. However, both leaders are now playing for high stakes.
The prime minister needs a Brexit deal at the summit on December 14-15 to reassure her party and business that she is leading the country towards a smooth exit, including a transition deal.
In spite of the setback in Brussels, most Tory Eurosceptics remain notably supportive of Mrs May, accepting that a series of compromises will be needed to deliver a Brexit which is not economically ruinous, and the mood in Number 10 remains optimistic.
Gavin Barwell, Mrs May’s chief of staff, briefed Tory MPs in the House of Commons on the unexpected breakdown in negotiations, reassuring them that the government was not proposing to treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.
One Tory MP said the atmosphere in the room was remarkably calm: “I went hoping to watch a punch-up and there was no punch-up.”
Mrs Foster knows that if she withdraws her support from the Conservative government, she would precipitate an election that could be won by a Labour party headed by Jeremy Corbyn, seen by the DUP as a former sympathiser of the IRA republican terror group.
Also, the DUP recognises that the worst Brexit deal for Northern Ireland would be a “no deal” departure, that would make more likely the imposition of a “hard border” with customs and other controls at the Irish border — which will become an EU external frontier.
Mrs May therefore insisted she was “confident” that a form of language can be found before the end of the week to bridge what appears to be a big gap between the DUP and Dublin.