19 Feb 2019

Theresa May puts her chips on Cox

The Malthouse Compromise was dismissed as a runner by Michel Barnier in talks with the Brexit Secretary last night. The EU always thought it was putting too much faith in technology solutions to the border issue in Northern Ireland and took a pick ‘n mix approach to the painstakingly crafted Withdrawal Agreement. Fine, they say, we can look at technology arrangements during the transition and put that in the future relationship document. Want it in the Withdrawal Agreements by 29th March? Forget it.

But Theresa May had allowed some of her ERG critics to think it was a runner. And that approach had bought Theresa May some time and calmed down some ERG figures as they go to meetings with civil servants in Whitehall who are dutifully and respectfully listening to plans the government had long since dismissed.

So where are we and what will the PM discuss with Jean-Claude Juncker tomorrow in Brussels?

Theresa May, after the 230-strong defeat in the Commons, promised a major re-think of her entire deal. As the weeks tick by it looks like she is actually going to come back with nothing of the sort.

If she’d lost, as many in no. 10 had originally expected, by 30-odd votes in December when the vote on the deal was meant to happen, the plan was to get some legal guarantees from Brussels that the backstop was genuinely a temporary structure, and come back for a second, high wire, tense vote a little while later.

With the falling away of other options that seems to be where, maybe three months later, we are heading.

The new ingredient is that the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, will give his Brexiteers’ kitemark to the changes giving DUP MPs and ERG members the confidence or cover to come down their ladders and vote with the government. That’s the theory.

One senior ERG figure said to me that won’t work. “We will be ruthlessly forensic,” he said, in checking Geoffrey Cox’s work. “Give a lawyer his dream job and he’ll do anything not to give it up,” the ERG MP said, suggesting Geoffrey Cox’s assurances would not be taken at face value if they say the backstop is temporary in a legally watertight way.

Tomorrow Mrs May and Mr Juncker will hope they can begin work on those legal documents that will give weight, it is argued, to the already much repeated claim that the backstop is temporary. Mr Cox and his team have been working on what they want to read in the legal instrument. The European Commission has been doing similar work. It’s hard to imagine there aren’t channels to ensure they are working on similar types of work. Tomorrow might formally join up the two work teams.

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