British Prime Minister Theresa May urged her increasingly mutinous party on Monday to back her strategy over Brexit, insisting a deal with the EU was close even as she once again rejected the bloc’s proposal for the Irish border.
She argued that her strategy for pulling Britain out of the EU was “not about me” but based on the “national interest”.
But opposition from all sides has stepped up at home since a Brussels summit last week failed to make a breakthrough, raising fears Britain could be heading for a deeply damaging “no deal” exit next March.
Talk of a leadership challenge from within her Conservative party reached fever pitch at the weekend, with one newspaper quoting an unnamed MP saying May was entering “the killing zone”.
Brussels and London still disagree on how to keep open the land border between British Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland – and May emphasised she will not compromise on this.
“I’ve been very clear that this must be achieved without creating any kind of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK,” she wrote in The Sun.
“Doing so would undermine our precious Union and put at risk the hard-won peace” in the province, which was plagued by three decades of violence in which 3,500 people died.
The EU wants to keep Northern Ireland aligned with its customs rules and regulations until a wider trade deal can be agreed that removes the need for frontier checks.
London rejects this, offering instead a UK-wide solution – but insists this can only be temporary, something the EU says it cannot agree to.
Eurosceptic Conservatives fear the dispute could force Britain into a never-ending customs union with the EU after Brexit, leaving it unable to conduct its own trade policy.
A plan mooted in Brussels last week to extend the post-transition to resolve the matter only added to their fears.
May held two conference calls with her cabinet ministers over the weekend in a bid to allay their concerns.
But as the Brexit deal nears, the pressure is growing on her critics to put up or shut up.
May’s Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have already raised the stakes by threatening to vote against next week’s budget if the deal results in any special status for the province.
Up to 41 eurosceptic Conservative MP could this week also back an attempt to enshrine the pledge on Northern Ireland into law, according to their group, StandUp4Brexit.
An amendment to an existing bill would make it impossible to implement “any trade or regulatory barriers” between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain without agreement by the province’s assembly.
The assembly has not sat since January 2017 and the DUP could likely block any such approval.