Theresa May sparks fresh Tory backlash by refusing to put deadline on 'temporary' EU customs deal
Theresa May has sparked a fresh row with Tory MPs by repeatedly failing to put a deadline on a "temporary" customs deals aimed at avoiding a hard border in Ireland.
The Prime Minister also admitted that any Brexit deal could still be "weeks" away, meaning the negotiations are likely to go down to the wire.
Mrs May has proposed that any so-called "backstop" arrangement would see the whole of the UK remaining in the EU customs union until a permanent arrangement can be found to ensure a frictionless border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
In response, the EU has said that in any event, Northern Ireland must remain in the customs union and parts of the single market - something the Prime Minister dubbed "a backstop to the backstop".
Tory eurosceptics have demanded that Mrs May insists on a end date for the UK-wide backstop be inserted in any withdrawal agreement she strikes with Brussels.
But after making a statement to MPs this afternoon, she refused repeated attempts by her own MPs to get her to give them that assurance.
Simon Clarke, the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said: "So far today my Right Honourable Friend has failed to reasure the House that we will definitely be able to leave the backstop by 31 December, 2020."
Mrs May replied: "I have been clear that one of thr areas where we are continuing to discuss with the European Union ... is this issue of the temporary nature of the backstop and ensuring that we have the means to ensure that backstop is temporary were it ever to come in place."
Earlier, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had also urged the Prime Minister to put a deadline on the backstop.
He said: "Can the Prime Minister confirm that the very latest deadline that this country will take back control of our tariff schedules in Geneva and vary those tariffs independently of Brussels in order to do free trade deals will be the 31 December, 2021. If that isn't the deadline, could she say what it is?"
But Mrs May refused to commit to a deadline, saying only that she "expects" that to be the end date.
"One of the issues we are discussing with the European Union is how we do reflect the temporary nature of the backstop," she said. "I continue to believe what we should all be doing is working to ensure that the backstop never comes into place."
In her statement, Mrs May also punctured any hopes of a breakthrough at this week's EU Council summit in Brussels.
Despite insisting that negotiators from both sides had made "real progress in recent weeks", she conceded that they remain far apart on the issue of the Irish backstop.
She said: "The EU says there is not time to work out the detail of this UK-wide solution in the next few weeks.
"So even with the progress we have made, the EU still requires a 'backstop to the backstop' – effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy.
"And they want this to be the Northern Ireland-only solution that they had previously proposed. We have been clear that we cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom."
It also emerged tonight that EU Council president Donald Tusk has invited Mrs May to address a meeting of the heads of the other 27 member states on Wednesday evening too give them her assessment of the Brexit talks.
In a letter to EU leaders, he urged them not to give up hope of getting a withdrawal agreement, even though the chances of no-deal "is more likely than ever before".
He said: "As you remember from Salzburg, we wished for maximum progress and results that would lead to a deal in October. As things stand today, it has proven to be more complicated than some may have expected. We should nevertheless remain hopeful and determined, as there is good will to continue these talks on both sides.
"But at the same time, responsible as we are, we must prepare the EU for a no-deal scenario, which is more likely than ever before. Like the UK, the Commission has started such preparations, and will give us an update during the meeting.
"But let me be absolutely clear. The fact that we are preparing for a no-deal scenario must not, under any circumstances, lead us away from making every effort to reach the best agreement possible, for all sides. This is what our state of mind should be at this stage. As someone rightly said: 'It always seems impossible until it's done.' Let us not give up."