Theresa May heads back into Brexit battle

Theresa May is expected to be back in Downing Street this week as ministers prepare to flesh out their negotiating position on Brexit.

The return of the Prime Minister, who has spent three weeks on holiday in Italy with her husband Philip, coincides with the publication this week of a series of new position papers on Brexit - including one on the fraught issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

It is thought that it will include an offer of continued free movement for Irish nationals in and out of the UK once Britain has left the EU in March 2019.

There will then be a further series of papers in the run up to the European Council in Brussels in October, setting out the Government's vision of Britain's future relations with the EU, including the crucial issue of the post-Brexit customs arrangements.

The move comes amid complaints from Brussels about a lack of clarity about the British negotiating position.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is reported to have warned his first two rounds of talks with Brexit Secretary David Davis, covering the opening issues of the Irish border, the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and Britain's "divorce bill", had made limited progress.

Ministers hope the release of the position papers will convince the EU side that they will be ready to move on to the next phase of the negotiations, including a new free trade deal with the bloc, in the autumn.

Mr Davis said: "I've launched this process because with time of the essence, we need to get on with negotiating the bigger issues around our future partnership to ensure we get a deal that delivers a strong UK and a strong EU.

"It's what businesses across Europe have called on both sides to do and will demonstrate that the UK is ready for the job."

Meanwhile The Times said the slow progress so far had led to complaints in Whitehall that senior officials were now trying to rush through decisions in an attempt to break the policy logjam.

There were said to be concerns that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU were railroading through issues at a time when many ministers were away, leading to poor decision-making.

At the end of a difficult summer, marked by speculation over a possible leadership challenge and jostling for position among senior ministers over Brexit, there was some respite for the Prime Minister with an apparent truce between two of the leading protagonists.

Chancellor Philip Hammond, who favours a "soft", pro-business Brexit, and the Brexiteer International Development Secretary Liam Fox signed up to a joint statement at the weekend agreeing that there would have to be a transition period after Britain has left the EU.

They agreed that while the measure was necessary to ensure there was no "cliff-edge" break for businesses, it would be time-limited and that Britain would leave the EU single market and the customs union when it left the bloc.

The move was criticised by the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, who accused the Chancellor of caving in to the demands of the hardline Brexiteers.

AP


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