Conservative MPs have been told they must be in Westminster on Monday – leading to speculation a new Brexit deal is to be announced.
Tory MPs will be on a three-line whip on Monday, meaning all 355 of them must be in parliament for a possible important vote.
If they defy the order, they could have the whip withdrawn – meaning suspension or even being expelled from the party.
Three-line whips – named because instructions on how to vote are underlined three times to emphasise importance – normally only apply to major events such as the second readings of significant bills.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why does it matter?
MPs have not been told exactly why they have been given a three-line whip to be in on Monday but Rishi Sunak has been negotiating a new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland all week with the EU.
The likelihood of an announcement was further boosted on Friday after sources in London and Brussels said an evening call between the prime minister and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was “positive”.
A Downing Street source said there had been “good progress” and The Times said cabinet ministers have been put on alert for a possible conference call over the weekend.
Ms von der Leyen was expected to arrive in the UK to meet Mr Sunak on Saturday for further in-person talks about the Northern Ireland protocol but that is no longer happening, government sources confirmed.
Sky News revealed on Friday the government had been planning to get King Charles to meet Ms von der Leyen at Windsor Castle as part of the negotiations, but that was cancelled earlier on Friday. There is no suggestion the King would have taken part in talks.
UK government sources stressed it would not have been improper for the King to have met a visiting European leader.
“It would be wrong to suggest the King would be involved in anything remotely political,” a government source told the PA news agency.
DUP tests delaying deal?
A deal was expected to be announced in the middle of this week but that has not happened, partly due to Tory Brexiteers and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) standing in the way.
The DUP has refused to be part of Stormont’s power sharing government because of the Northern Ireland Protocol, meaning there has been no functioning assembly there for a year.
It has laid down seven “tests” a new plan will have to pass, including no Irish Sea border.
Critics of the existing protocol say a border has effectively been created due to checks having to be carried out on goods coming from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland because the country shares a land border with the EU in Ireland.
The DUP also wants no checks on those goods at all.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly indicated ministers will not sign off on a deal until the DUP’s concerns are addressed.
Earlier this week, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat refused to confirm to Sky News whether MPs will be able to vote on a new deal, although Mr Sunak indicated during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday there would be a vote.
When asked if MPs would have a vote, Mr Tugendhat said: “You’ll have to ask the chief whip about that.”
Now a three-line whip has been instigated, the assumption is there will be a vote next week.
What are the DUP’s tests for a Protocol replacement?
Breakup of UK ‘at stake’ if new deal isn’t reached
Three likely changes
What exactly could be in a new deal for Northern Ireland has been kept under wraps during the negotiations.
Sky News’ Deputy Political Editor Sam Coates said three key changes are likely to form part of the agreement.
• Businesses that have signed up to a “trusted trader scheme” will be allowed to avoid all checks when moving goods from the GB mainland to Northern Ireland. In exchange, the EU will be able to access “real-time” UK data on trade flows across the Irish Sea
• The “Stormont Lock” will see the EU have to give the UK notice of future EU regulations intended for Northern Ireland. The Joint Ministerial Committee will then be able to lodge an objection, which may then result in the EU voluntarily choosing to disapply the regulation in Northern Ireland
• Control of the so-called level playing field of measures, like VAT rates and state subsidy policy, will revert to Westminster.