May’s ‘bold, new offer’ on Brexit has probably made things worse
Analysis: Nobody at Westminster prepared to risk supporting a weakened PM facing inevitable failure
Theresa May’s “bold, new offer” on Brexit includes compromises with Labour, the DUP and advocates for a second referendum that would have been unimaginable a few months ago. But the effect of the British prime minister’s speech on Tuesday appears to have been to make things worse, as concessions to one group of MPs have alienated others.
Her own weakness, in the dying weeks of her political career, has become an obstacle to winning a majority for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) next month. Because nobody at Westminster believes she has a chance of success, nobody has an incentive to take a risk by supporting her.
For the DUP, the proposal does not meet the central demand of removing the Northern Ireland backstop from the withdrawal agreement. But it goes a long way towards trying to prevent it coming into effect and mitigating its impact if it is triggered.
The bill would incorporate 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady’s proposal to put into law a commitment to seek to agree alternative arrangements for the Border by December 2020. It guarantees that Great Britain will remain aligned on regulations and customs with Northern Ireland if the backstop does come into force.
And it fulfils a longstanding DUP demand by putting into law paragraph 50 of the December 2017 joint declaration with the EU that first proposed the backstop.
“In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market,” it states.
Unionists have long complained that the paragraph has been ignored but May promised that it will be implemented in law so that “the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive will have to give their consent on a cross-community basis for new regulations which are added to the backstop”.
This is almost certainly the best offer the DUP will ever get on Brexit and by rejecting it, it risks a no-deal Brexit that could shift the balance of opinion on the Union in Northern Ireland so that a border poll becomes inevitable. But if the bill looks certain to fail at Westminster, the DUP will see no advantage in offering their support to a prime minister on her way out of Downing Street.