Theresa May is set to dump her assurance that a deal to keep the UK in the European Union’s customs territory must be time-limited.
The prime minister’s refusal to bow to pressure from senior ministers to put a strict time frame in place now looks likely to spark a raft of resignations.
A spokeswomen for Number 10 refused four times to say the backstop agreement – which would be put in place to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland – would be finite.
She added: ‘Our position is that this future economic relationship needs to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.’
The comment will anger Brexiteer ministers who pushed for a end date during a 90-minute crunch cabinet meeting.
During the meeting work and pensions secretary Esther McVey pointedly refused to endorse the PM’s Chequers plan while international development secretary Penny Mordaunt and the leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom also made it clear they held deep concerns.
And Westminster is rife with rumours that foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, environment secretary Michael Gove and trade secretary Liam Fox are also prepared to turn their backs on the PM.
May set out in June proposals for a ‘temporary customs arrangement’ to ensure that the border remains open in the case that no broader EU/UK trade agreement has been finalised.
The document stated that the government ‘expects’ this arrangement to remain in place no later than the end of December 2021.
But the EU is mounting resistance to any specific time limit being included in the text of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement, while Leave-backing ministers are understood to be insistent that the end of the arrangement should be more precisely defined than the vague term ‘temporary’.
While the UK remains in a customs union with the EU, it cannot strike free trade deals with other countries like the US or China.
Brexiteers fear that once Britain is signed up to any sort of ‘temporary’ arrangement, the EU will seek to drag it out into the indefinite future.
As officials continued to wrangle over the precise wording of the agreement in Brussels, a Downing Street spokeswoman also told a Westminster media briefing: ‘The Prime Minister would never agree to a deal which would trap the UK in a backstop permanently.’
Downing Street has always been clear that it does not wish or expect the backstop option to be implemented, as it insists it will be possible to agree a wider trade deal guaranteeing an open border in Ireland by the end of the transition period in December 2020.
But Chancellor Philip Hammond has now suggested that he believes 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.’