Downing Street has sought to play down suggestions Theresa May is prepared to backtrack on her Irish border stance in a bid to agree a Brexit deal.
The future status of the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic has emerged as a key sticking point in the exit negotiations.
A particular source of contention is what the “backstop” – the fallback option for border arrangements in the event the two sides cannot reach an agreement by the end of the transition period – will look like.
Brussels wants this safety net – which is aimed at avoiding a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland – to be open-ended rather than strictly time-limited.
There have been reports the prime minister may be preparing to concede on this point, speculation that has sparked talk of possible ministerial resignations if Mrs May is viewed to be giving too much ground to the EU.
Three ministers – Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Commons leader Andrea Leadsom are said to have deep concerns about such a concession.
But Mrs May’s spokeswoman said the PM stood by her original position, telling journalists at a daily briefing: “The prime minister would never agree to a deal which would trap the UK in a backstop permanently.”
Back in June, Mrs May proposed that the whole of the UK would remain in a “temporary customs arrangement” with the EU until a deal on the future economic partnership was agreed.
Downing Street’s position is that it “expects” this arrangement remaining in place no later than the end of December 2021.
Mrs May wants the backstop to apply to the UK as a whole to avoid the creation of a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The EU wants it to apply to Northern Ireland only, effectively keeping the country in the single market and customs union to avoid the need for customs checks.
However, Mrs May is coming under pressure to set a more precise time limit on the arrangement, something the EU is against.
Brexiteers fear that if Britain signs up to any sort of “temporary” arrangement, Brussels will try to drag it out.
They also worry it would restrict Britain’s ability to strike free trade deals around the world.
Downing Street has been insistent that it does not expect the backstop be needed, as it will be possible to agree a deal that maintains frictionless trade across the Irish border by the end of the transition period in December 2020.
But Chancellor Philip Hammond has now said he thinks the backstop will “probably” be needed for a period.
He told Bloomberg TV: “We are not going to remain in anything indefinitely, we are very clear this has to be a temporary period.
“But it is true that there needs to be a period, probably following the transition period that we have negotiated, before we enter into our long-term partnership, just because of the time it will take to implement the systems required.
“It’s very important to us that business doesn’t have to make two sets of changes, that there will be effectively continuity from the current set-up through the transition period into any temporary period and then a single set of changes when we move into our long-term new economic partnership with the European Union.”
(c) Sky News 2018: Downing Street: PM won’t agree Brexit deal that ‘traps’ UK in customs union