28 Jan 2019

Theresa May says let me re-think backstop

Political Editor

Two weeks after the thumping Commons defeat for the Brexit divorce deal Theresa May has unveiled her Plan B. In a meeting with Tory MPs she asked them to back an amendment (the Brady amendment) which she hopes gets voted on tomorrow and which calls for “alternative arrangements” to the Northern Ireland backstop to be put in place.

The problem is that same amendment was being discussed and rejected a few moments earlier by the ERG group of MPs in a separate meeting. Some of those ERG supporters may defy that group’s decision if the amendment is called tomorrow but it looks like there would be enough ERG MPs following the line to mean it doesn’t pass.

Is this Plan B destined to have an even shorter political life than the cross-party talks initiative launched straight after the Commons drubbing two weeks ago? It was due to get some sort of Cabinet backing tomorrow so it is potentially fatally wounded before it has become a fully adopted strategy. Last week’s Cabinet, one source at the meeting said,  had no summing up but did see a consensus talk about the need to get “something on the Backstop.”

One Cabinet minister said he expected that even if the Brady amendment is defeated, he thought the Prime Minister would plough one trying to find ways of improving the deal anyway. In Brussels, they will be underwhelmed by any new approach that can’t guarantee the  support of a stable majority of MPs. As Sabine Weyand, the EU counterpart to the UK’s Olly Robbins, said to a think tank meeting in Brussels this afternoon, it is a “big challenge” to see a reliable majority for the relevant legislation taking shape even if Theresa May won the second attempt at the meaningful vote on the deal, now in the diary for 13th February.

One Cabinet source said he now thought it “highly likely” that all the amendments that matter tomorrow (he was excepting the Spelman amendment as it has no teeth and is “declamatory”) will be defeated. He thought it was now a “fair assumption” the deal would lose second time round.

The Cabinet source said there were now indications via officials that the EU might actually lean towards a longer extension or delay to the Brexit date if Britain applies for one. The talk of Britain getting a delay up to 1st July, the day before the newly elected European Parliament sits, was something the EU was cooling on.

It wouldn’t achieve much, was the logic, and as the demander the UK wouldn’t be in great shape to argue against a longer one. “They’d say European Parliament elections have to go ahead,” the Cabinet minister said. Another of those famed “fear” operations to scare MPs into supporting the deal? Thoughts in EU capitals are pretty fluid but could a longer extension be gaining ground?