Brexit talks stall once again after DUP's Arlene Foster vetoes deal on Irish border
Theresa May's hopes of a Brexit agreement have been dealt a fresh blow after DUP leader Arlene Foster vetoed her plan for a deal on the Irish border.
The Prime Minister admitted she had been unable to reach agreement following a three-hour lunch with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker - but insisted she was "confident" a deal could still be struck by the end of this week.
Earlier, the Government had been sure that a deal could be reached which would see the EU agree that sufficient progress had been made on Ireland, citizens' rights and the size of the Brexit divorce bill.
That would then be signed off at the EU Council meeting next week, allowing the Brexit talks to move on to trade in the New Year.
Irish state broadcaster RTE reported that the UK would agree to "continued regulatory alignment" between the Republic and Northern Ireland to avoid the return of a hard border to carry out customs checks between the two countries.
But that was immediately rejected by Ms Foster - whose 10 MPs Mrs May relies on to prop up her minority government.
She said: "We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the UK. The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom must not be compromised in any way."
Ms Foster also made her feelings known to the Prime Minister during a hastily-arranged phone call midway through her lunch with Mr Juncker.
At a press conference after their lunch, Mr Juncker said Mrs May was "a tough negotiator and not an easy one", and insisted a deal could still be reached by the end of this week.
He added: "Despite our best efforts and significant progress we and our teams have made over the past days on three remaining withdrawal issues it was not possible to reach a complete agreement today. We now have a common understanding on most related issues with just two or three open for discussion. This will require further consultation, further negotiation and further discussions.
"We stand ready to resume the negotiations with the UK here in Brussels later this week, but I have to say we were narrowing our positions to a huge extent today thanks to the British prime minister, thanks to the willingness of the European Commission to have a fair deal with Britain.
"I’m still confident we can reach ‘sufficient progress’ before the European Council of 15 December. This Is not a failure, this is the start of the very last round, I’m very confident that we will reach an agreement in the course of this week."
Mrs May said: "We’ve been negotiating hard and a lot of progress has been made and on many of the issues there is a common understanding and it's clear, crucially, that we want to move forward together.
"But on a couple of issues some differences do remain which require further negotiation and consultation, and those will continue but we will reconvene before the end of the week and I’m also confident that we will conclude this positively."
The latest hold-up is a major blow to the Prime Minister, who will have to explain the failure - and her strategy - to her Cabinet in Downing Street tomorrow morning.