Brexit: May sticks to anti-backstop script despite EU rebuff

PM to meet MPs about ‘alternative arrangements’ for Border on Thursday

UK prime minister Theresa May met Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday. Photograph: Mark Duffy/PA Wire

Theresa May has told MPs that Tuesday night's vote had set a clear direction for Brexit by making clear that the House of Commons would approve the withdrawal agreement if the issue of the backstop was dealt with.

She said she would propose changes based on proposals from Conservative MPs, including a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism for the backstop and “alternative measures” using technological and administrative measures to minimise friction at the Border.

"What has been absolutely clear in my contacts with European Union leaders is that they want a deal. What the House voted for last night was to leave the European Union with a deal, but it also crucially showed what it will take to see support in the House for a deal in the future.

“I think that the plan that was set out last night shows that we can obtain a substantial and sustainable majority in the House,” she said.

British Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay has said the British government would accept an amendment from a Tory MP aimed at limiting the duration of the backstop Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Mrs May met Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday afternoon and she will meet other MPs on Thursday. Her official spokesman said she would meet the Conservative Brexiteers and Remainers behind a proposal to replace the backstop with a tariff-free trade area and maximum customs facilitation (also known as max-fac).

“There will be further meetings between ministers, officials and the MPs who have put forward these ideas such as what’s been described as the Malthouse compromise, for one. I think you can expect those meetings to take place in very short order, in the next day or so. And then you can expect the PM to be having conversations with her colleagues in Brussels shortly,” the spokesman said.

"What we'll be guided by is what the prime minister believes will meet the concerns of MPs – that the backstop can only be temporary, or that the future arrangement which we reach which guarantees no hard border in Northern Ireland is something which we're not going to be in indefinitely. Our commitment to no hard Border will remain but the concern around the backstop is that it was indefinite."

Mystery arrangements

In a BBC interview on Wednesday, Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay failed five times to describe the alternative arrangements the prime minister will propose as a replacement for the backstop.

He said the UK government was exploring the use of technology and conducting customs checks away from the Border.

“There’s a number of options, there’s issues in terms of having time limits, there’s issues in terms of exit clauses, issues in terms of technology. This will be the nature of the negotiation with the European Union,” he said.

Appearing before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab admitted that during his only visit to the Border last year, he did not meet any of those who lived there or their elected representatives.

Labour MP Conor McGinn, who was born in Co Armagh, said Mr Raab’s visit was emblematic of the Conservative approach to Brexit and the Border.

“My contention is that this conversation is largely about technological solutions and trade and the economy, and less about people,” Mr McGinn said.

“For people in those communities . . . there is a concern, there is a fear and there is a frustration that their voices and their views are not being heard. And quite frankly, when you talk about goodwill and acting in good faith, it’s hard to see how they can trust any incumbent in your previous position, or the UK government as a whole, to act in their interests when they won’t even meet them.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times