The Government has rejected claims that a Brexit deal cannot be negotiated in time for a crucial EU summit after the Finnish prime minister said “more time” is needed.
Boris Johnson is in a race against the clock to secure a fresh agreement for the meeting of European leaders starting in Brussels on Thursday.
After meeting the European Council’s president-elect Charles Michel, Finland’s Antti Rinne said there was “no time” for the UK Prime Minister to achieve an agreement.
But Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick rejected the remarks, stressing a “great deal” of progress had been made and negotiators are working “very intensively”.
He told BBC’s Newsnight: “The EU is capable of moving extremely quickly if they wish to. Like any negotiation with the EU, and in fact with any major negotiation in life, everything happens at the last minute.
“This was always going to be both complicated and come down to the final hours and days, so this doesn’t surprise me. We are going to work round the clock to try to secure it.”
Mr Rinne’s comments came as negotiators stepped up efforts to work out a way to break the deadlock over the Irish backstop, the contingency measure to prevent a hard border on the island.
“I think there is no time in a practical or legal way to find an agreement before the EU Council meeting. We need more time,” Mr Rinne said during a Helsinki press conference, in remarks reported by Reuters.
A Cabinet briefing on Brexit was understood to have been postponed by Mr Johnson as negotiators continued talks to hammer out a new deal ahead of the October 31 deadline.
Tuesday’s planned update to senior ministers was said to have been delayed until Wednesday so he can give more detailed information on efforts to strike a new agreement.
The PM has been under increasing pressure to concede greater ground to Brussels, with reports suggesting the UK has dropped a demand that a deal should include a veto for the Stormont Assembly on customs arrangements.
Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney raised some hopes by saying “a deal is possible”, maybe even this week, but stressed “we’re not there yet”.
In similar comments, Mr Johnson told senior ministers there was “still a significant amount of work to get there” but a “pathway” to a deal was still visible.
The two-day EU summit is crucial because the PM must get a new deal approved by MPs by Saturday if he is to avoid a clash over asking for a Brexit delay.
The Benn Act passed by MPs opposed to a no deal, including Tory rebels, says he must ask for an extension to Article 50 if MPs do not back a deal by then.
There are fears that a loophole could be used to avoid this, with the PM repeatedly ruling out making the extension request under his “do or die” pledge to get Brexit done by the Halloween deadline.
Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested the Government could use European law to achieve no deal.
“Theresa May got an extension not through UK law but through EU law and, until the 1972 European Communities Act is repealed, EU law is superior law in the UK,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
Labour has threatened court action to force the PM to obey the legislation.
Regardless of the outcome in Brussels, a showdown is anticipated in an emergency sitting of Parliament on Saturday – the first in 37 years – if MPs approve the unusual move.
They will be able to back or reject any deal presented to them, or there will be discussions on what to do next in the Brexit saga.