Brexit-backing Conservative MPs have lined up to echo the warning of Democratic Unionist party leader, Arlene Foster, that “any form of regulatory divergence” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be an unacceptable concession in Brexit negotiations.
Several Tory politicians were quick to swing behind their Northern Irish allies on whom they depend for a parliamentary majority after the DUP intervention appeared to scupper any hopes held by Theresa May of completing the first stage of talks with the EU27 on Monday.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, told the Guardian: “The prime minister is fully aware that when it comes to the border issue Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK and therefore there cannot be any regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “The Conservative and Unionist party has a similar view of the union to that of the DUP.”
Their comments followed leaks to the media suggesting the UK government had been on the brink of an agreement in which it would accept “continued regulatory alignment” between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
That suggestion triggered the DUP’s intervention, with the prime minister taking a break from critical negotiations in Brussels to discuss the issue with Foster over the phone, before accepting that a deal would not be completed that day.
Senior government sources stressed that the leak to the broadcaster RTE was not quite correct and argued that there was a difference between issues of “alignment” and “divergence”.
They said that even with agreement on the border, there remained a further sticking point over the role of the European court of justice in the question of EU citizen rights.
However, one Whitehall source made clear that the DUP intervention was critical given that May’s majority is based on a confidence and supply agreement with the party. “We need their votes,” they admitted.
Several Tory MPs expressed alarm about the leaks during a meeting at Westminster with the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, and the Brexit minister Steve Baker.
During the meeting, Theresa Villiers, the Brexit-backing former Northern Ireland secretary, asked whether alignment was a possibility, but sources said the reply was non-committal.
Rees-Mogg made clear that there could be no difference between different parts of the UK and that Britain as a whole needed to have the freedom to diverge from the EU on regulations after Brexit.
“We cannot align the regulation of one part of the United Kingdom with the European Union. If we align the whole of the United Kingdom, then we haven’t left the European Union so there is a logical impossibility of doing what the Irish government proposes,” he told reporters after the meeting.
Rees-Mogg said the DUP and the Tories were in total agreement – as he stressed the support of the Northern Irish party was necessary to maintain the government’s majority in the House of Commons. “Gavin Barwell made it absolutely clear. As he said, we are not going to trade on distinctions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That would be completely intolerable. We are the Conservative and Unionist party after all.”
Rees-Mogg called the leaked document “propaganda from the Irish government”.
There was mixed reaction to No 10’s attempts to reassure colleagues. One source said they had been persuaded by Barwell’s argument that the mention of alignment was only in relation to the “unlikely” scenario in which the UK crashed out of the EU because of failure to achieve an agreement on trade.
Barwell is thought to have presented the scenario as a contingency or backstop that would secure a soft border in the event of that extreme outcome.
Another MP joked that the meeting had been about as enlightening as “a lightbulb switching off and plunging us into darkness”.
Villiers argued that despite the difficulties on Monday, she felt hopeful about a deal being imminent.
“Genuinely it is positive that the two sides are now pretty close together on all sorts of difficult issues and that demonstrates that hopefully there is a good chance of moving on to stage two of the process. Clearly there are two significant issues [the border question and the ECJ] that are still to be resolved,” she said.
Others in the room who supported remain in the referendum were prepared for May to offer concessions. One leave-supporting Conservative MP insisted they were not overly alarmed about the idea of a small amount of regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
“They seem to be talking about a particular set of rules, not the entire single market. No 10 was quite reassuring that it would all be worked out later somewhere down the line. It doesn’t seem to be enough for the DUP but we know both they and the Irish government play hardball in their negotiations. So it is not clear whether their outrage is genuine or not,” they said.
MP Anna Soubry, the former cabinet minister, said a simple solution to the Irish border issue would be for the UK to stay in the single market and the customs union.
“Nobody could want one part of our country to have a different set of rules to another part of the country. On that, Jacob and I are absolutely agreed,” Soubry said. “The sense in the room is that nobody wanted that. If we stay in the single market, that solves the problem.”
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