Talks to get PM's deal over line fail to sway DUP and Tory Eurosceptics
Frantic talks aimed at winning over the DUP and the hardline European Research Group to back the Prime Minister's Brexit deal have ended in failure.
Talks were expected to last all weekend, with the hope that a deal would be backed next week.
The breakdown came after MPs last night voted to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline from the EU, the length of which will depend on whether Mrs May can get her deal through Parliament in a third-time-lucky attempt next week.
But May's hopes of winning over Eurosceptics and the DUP were dealt a fresh blow after the "Star Chamber" of Brexiteer lawyers rejected a further attempt to allay their concerns about the backstop.
The group of lawyers, led by Tory Sir Bill Cash, said the suggestion that the UK could use the Vienna Convention - the international treaty that lays down the rules about treaties - to unilaterally pull out of the backstop was "badly misconceived".
The panel of lawyers, which significantly also includes DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, rejected supplementary legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
The Attorney General's advice hinges on Article 62 of the Vienna Convention, which says that if there has been "a fundamental change of circumstances" following the conclusion of a treaty "which was not foreseen by the parties", then the countries involved would be allowed to withdraw from it.
But the Brexit-backing lawyers said "given the high burden that a State must meet to use it, and given the extreme reluctance of international courts and tribunals to accept it" the Vienna Convention route "supplies no assurance whatsoever that the UK could terminate the withdrawal agreement in a lawful manner".
Earlier yesterday, DUP leader Arlene Foster told Channel 4 News her party was "talking to the Government and to the Attorney General at the moment to try and make a deal happen because we want to see Brexit working".
"We want to see it working for the whole of the UK in a way that doesn't leave Northern Ireland behind," she added.
Mrs Foster claimed that the issue of the backstop had been overplayed and that Northern Ireland has a "very small market".
The DUP had signalled it could perhaps back the deal, which was seen as dead just a few days ago.
Revised legal advice was pursued in a bid to get the divorce deal over the line.
Mr Cox is said to have redrafted the legal advice that ultimately killed Mrs May's vote last Tuesday.
His legal opinion on the backstop dealt a massive blow to Mrs May's hopes of getting her Brexit deal passed by the Commons when he declared on Tuesday "the legal risk remains unchanged" that the UK may have "no internationally lawful means" of leaving the backstop without EU agreement.
But late last night, the move appeared to have failed.
Earlier, Philip Hammond suggested that Mr Cox should consider the opinions of other eminent lawyers on the backstop.
The Chancellor said: "The Attorney General's legal view is clearly very important.
"This is a very complex agreement and many other eminent lawyers are coming out with views and interpretations.
"I'm sure that the Attorney General will want to consider very carefully all the evidence and all the qualified opinion that there is around this issue."
Meanwhile, the EU offered to restart efforts this weekend to help Mrs May get the deal through but also insisted that negotiations were over.
One suggestion being floated is offering further clarity on the role Stormont could have in negotiations in the trade deal talks.
Mrs May's performance over the coming days will determine if she attends the EU council next week with a deal in hand, or if she will be begging for an extension to allow the UK to get its house in order. If her deal - which has already been defeated twice in the House of Commons - is agreed next Wednesday, then she will seek an extension the following day to give her until June 30 to allow Westminster to legislate for the deal to take effect.
However, if the withdrawal agreement is not passed, then she will have to petition for a longer extension and the UK will need to participate in the European elections.
European leaders have expressed differing views on the idea of a long extension, but European Council president Donald Tusk has suggested a year or more.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said a longer extension would give the UK time to consider options that have been taken off the table "like participation in the customs union and single market".
"I think we need to be open to any request they make, listen attentively and be generous in our response," he added.
Ireland is expected to lobby other European leaders to help Mrs May secure an extension if she comes to plead for more time.
A two-year extension would mean the UK has to continue paying into the EU budget and would also throw up questions about the type of mandate MEPs would have in Europe.
Sources in Dublin described the potential battle over the extension as a "robust debate" and a "bunfight" over what to give Mrs May if she comes seeking an extension.