May must identify alternative measures to backstop to win EU concessions

Brady amendment has identified backstop as the sole obstacle to ratifying the withdrawal agreement

British prime minister Theresa May addresses MPs following the results of voting on amendments put forward by MPs over the Government’s Brexit deal, in the House of Common.

British prime minister Theresa May addresses MPs following the results of voting on amendments put forward by MPs over the Government’s Brexit deal, in the House of Common.

 

The Taoiseach was quick to play down the significance of last night’s votes in the House of Commons, echoing Donald Tusk’s assertion that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation. But the vote in favour of Graham Brady’s amendment has changed a great deal, uniting the Conservative party over Brexit and identifying the Northern Ireland backstop as the sole obstacle in the way of ratifying the withdrawal agreement.

A day earlier, the prime minister’s insistence on seeking a majority for her Brexit deal on the basis of Conservative and DUP votes appeared doomed. And a cross-party majority opposed to a no-deal Brexit seemed poised to assert itself by taking control of the parliamentary agenda so that MPs could force the government to seek an extension to the article 50 negotiating deadline.

Yvette Cooper’s amendment to allow such a course of action was the most dangerous for the prime minister, not least because it encouraged the view in EU capitals a majority could be found for a softer Brexit. But May told MPs if she had not completed the renegotiation of her deal by February 13th, she would introduce an amendable motion that would be debated the following day.

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Wavers

This persuaded enough Conservative waverers that they would have another opportunity to block a no-deal Brexit. And Labour MPs who were queasy about being seen to be thwarting Brexit were able to comfort themselves by voting for another amendment which rejected a no-deal Brexit but did nothing to stop it.

The isolation of a change to the backstop as the single issue that is both necessary and sufficient to unlock a majority for the withdrawal agreement will shape the next stage of negotiations between London and Brussels. Although Tusk’s statement last night reflected the current consensus among EU leaders, the mood could change as pressure to resolve the backstop issue grows.

To win any concessions, May must first formulate a precise demand by identifying the “alternative measures” she wants to replace the backstop. The so-called Malthouse compromise that united some of her Remainer and Brexiteer backbenchers could become a burden to her negotiating team of Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay, attorney general Geoffrey Cox and her effective deputy prime minister David Lidington.

The Malthouse proposals are too outlandish and impractical to form the basis of any solution to the backstop. So as the prime minister seeks to woo her European partners, she will also have to keep a close eye on her ever watchful Brexiteer backbencher as she lets them down gently.

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