Boris Johnson is ready to recall parliament over its Christmas break if a trade deal is agreed with the EU, Downing Street has said.
Contrary to expectations in Westminster, the prime minister decided to send MPs home on Thursday, with the warning that they could be called back at any time in the next two weeks to rush through ratifying legislation. A No 10 source said talks were expected to continue in Brussels over the coming days and the recall could be as early as next week.
Signals from Brussels suggested that the two sides are inching towards agreement, with little more than a fortnight to go before the 31 December deadline to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
The departure of MPs and peers will intensify pressure for a swift agreement by adding potential delays into the legislative process needed for any deal to become law by the end of 2020.
MPs had been bracing themselves to wait until at least Tuesday for their festive recess to begin, in case of agreement being reached during the coming days.
But Downing Street’s announcement, set to be approved in the Commons on Thursday, made clear that the chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, need more time for talks in Brussels.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, gave her most optimistic assessment yet of the chances of a deal, telling MEPs that there was now a path to an agreement after concessions from the UK on the thorny issue of common standards.
In what appeared to be a piece of theatrics designed to convince a domestic audience that Mr Johnson was not giving up ground, Downing Street insisted that no-deal remained the most likely outcome.
But Mr Johnson himself did not use this phrase in a press conference at No 10, instead saying there was a good deal there to be done.
The PM had earlier suggested that the onus was on the EU to make any concessions, telling the House of Commons that a deal depended on Brussels seeing sense over UK demands to control its own laws and fishing waters.
The EU has been putting out a lot of spin over the last few days. There’s no detail in what she has said. I would be very surprised indeed if David Frost moved his position. Ms Von der Leyen said that issues surrounding the governance of an eventual deal were now largely being resolved.
And she said a big step forward had been made on the decisive issue of common standards, with agreement on a strong mechanism of non-regression, which is understood to allow either side to challenge regulatory divergence by the other that could give it a competitive advantage.
Downing Street has said that any deal reached before the end of 2020 will require legislative approval in both houses of parliament. Ms Von der Leyen has also promised a vote in the European parliament, which has agreed to meet as late as 28 December if necessary, though some in Brussels believe retrospective ratification is an option.
A No 10 spokesperson said: Time is now in short supply to reach an agreement with the EU and we expect discussions will continue over the coming days.
Parliament had continued to “do its duty” to deliver Brexit, with the last three bills required for departure from the EU set to receive royal assent by the end of Thursday, the spokesperson said.
In the absence of further substantive business, we will subject to the usual approval by the house go into recess tomorrow, but with the knowledge that we will recall MPs and peers to legislate for a deal if one is secured, he added. That recall could be as early as next week.