Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and attorney general Geoffrey Cox will today head to Brussels in a bid to win changes to the Irish backstop in the run-up to another crunch Commons vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal.
The two ministers are hoping EU officials will agree to a time limit to the backstop – the policy to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland by keeping the UK in a temporary customs union with the EU – as well as unilateral exit or "sunset" clause to ensure the UK is not kept in the arrangement indefinitely.
In recent days Cox, the government's chief legal adviser, has played down reports that he has given up on securing a firm end date to the backstop. Yesterday he tweeted:
The DT reporting of the last 24 hours consists of misunderstood fag ends dressed up as facts. Some of it is accurate, much more of it isn’t and what is not is far more significant than what is. Complex and detailed negotiations cannot be conducted in public.
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— Geoffrey Cox QC MP (@Geoffrey_Cox) March 4, 2019
MPs are due to vote on May's Brexit deal on 12 March. If the Commons rejects the withdrawal agreement again – as it did in January by 230 votes – MPs will vote on whether to rule out a no-deal Brexit the following day.
The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March.
This morning, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC that EU leaders were sending "positive signals" over striking a deal over the backstop.
He said: “The signals we are getting are reasonably positive. I don’t want to overstate them because I still think there’s a lot of work to do, but I think they do understand that we are being sincere.
“I think that they are beginning to realise that we can get a majority in parliament because they are seeing the signals coming from the people who voted against the deal before who are saying, crucially, that they are prepared to be reasonable about how we get to that position that we can’t legally be trapped in the backstop.”
Hunt also hinted that the Prime Minister may consider grating Tory MPs a free vote on the no-deal issue.
"Well, I think that is something that the government has to make a decision on, the Prime Minister has to make a decision on, and it is not for me to say that now," he said. "I don’t think a decision has been taken. But what we are focused on as a government is making sure that we do not actually have to take that decision as a parliament in the first place."