Europe

UK PM May struggles to find support

UK Prime Minister Theresa May is desperate to make the Brexit deal work. Source: AAP

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has told senior cabinet ministers a Brexit deal is close, but Northern Ireland unionists have threatened to topple her government.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has met senior cabinet members after Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) raised the pressure on her to change her Brexit plan.

Ahead of a crucial summit of EU leaders next week, May "briefed her inner cabinet ... that a historic Brexit deal is close," the Financial Times reported on Thursday.

The newspaper said two eurosceptic ministers were rumoured to be considering quitting the government, and that other lawmakers from May's Conservative Party were "fuming" that she appeared ready to accept a Brexit "backstop" to keep Britain in a "temporary" but potentially indefinite customs union with the EU.

The DUP is also unhappy that May is close to accepting the "backstop" plan for the Irish border, which could involve checks on some goods transported to Northern Ireland from Britain.

The 10 DUP lawmakers in the British parliament, who support May's minority government on key issues, abstained in a non-crucial vote late Wednesday - a symbolic warning to May.

"We will take decisions based on what is best for everyone in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom," DUP leader Arlene Foster said on Thursday.

Following a third day of talks with EU officials in Brussels, Foster accused EU leaders of wanting to "place an effective one-way turnstile from Northern Ireland into the rest of the United Kingdom."

May has proposed a temporary, last-resort "backstop" to maintain free movement of goods and people across the Irish border once Britain leaves the EU in March.

If no other solution can be found, the backstop would apply following a 21-month transitional period to keep an open border between the Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which will leave the bloc with the rest of the United Kingdom.

"Trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland would be in danger of restriction," Foster said.

"Indeed, Northern Ireland's access to any new United Kingdom trade deals would also be regulated by Brussels."

Eurosceptic Conservative Iain Duncan Smith, a former party chairman, told the BBC that May should "listen very carefully" amid speculation that the DUP lawmakers could vote against her budget later this month.

"We will not be bullied into propping up a soft-touch government which gives in to the EU's demands," DUP lawmaker Sammy Wilson wrote in Thursday's Telegraph newspaper.

Ivan Rogers, Britain's former ambassador to the EU, accused May's government of "extraordinary - indeed I would say culpable - naivety" in handling Brexit since the country voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum.

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