Technology suggested as Border solution as May woos Eurosceptics

Rees-Mogg admits failure to get 48 MPs’ signatures needed for PM confidence vote

Theresa May has revived the idea of a technological solution to keep the Border open after Brexit in an attempt to win over Eurosceptic Conservatives opposed to the draft withdrawal agreement. During a 2½-hour cabinet meeting on Tuesday, ministers discussed "alternative arrangements" that could provide an alternative to the backstop set out in the withdrawal agreement.

“One possible alternative arrangement could involve technological solutions,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said after the meeting.

The Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement says the backstop will apply "unless and until an alternative arrangement implementing another scenario is agreed". The protocol refers to last December's joint report, which said that, if the future EU-UK relationship did not resolve the Border issue, "the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland". In the absence of agreed solutions, the backstop would come into operation.

At a meeting in Downing Street on Monday with Brexiteers including former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson, Mrs May agreed to explore a technological solution. Until now, the British and Irish governments, along with the European Commission, have rejected proposals for maximum facilitation at borders through technology as unrealistic.


DUP support

“There’s scope to get rid of the backstop – this is the alternative,” Mr Duncan Smith said on Tuesday.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned the prime minister she could not rely on his party's support if she pressed ahead with the withdrawal agreement.

“The government will require DUP support to deliver its domestic agenda. We will continue to use our influence for the good of everyone across the United Kingdom. If the government can look beyond a withdrawal agreement, which is uniting people from across the political spectrum against it, and instead work towards a better deal, then an outcome can be delivered that truly works to benefit all parts of the United Kingdom,” he said.

The DUP abstained on some amendments to a finance Bill on Monday night, in apparent breach of their confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservatives, which requires them to support the government on all budget and finance Bills.

A Government spokesman in Dublin declined to comment on the discussions in London but made clear that the text of the withdrawal agreement could not be renegotiated. “The withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU was agreed last week and is clear from our perspective in guaranteeing no return to a hard border in Ireland in any circumstances,” the spokesman said.

Political declaration

Mrs May will travel to Brussels on Wednesday evening for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on the text of a political declaration on the future relationship between Britain and the EU. Downing Street said the meeting would not mark the conclusion of the negotiations and suggested the political declaration might not be finalised until after EU leaders meet in Brussels on Sunday.

European Council president Donald Tusk has scheduled just one hour for a discussion between Mrs May and the other 27 leaders but the prime minister's official spokesman described the timetable as purely illustrative.

Mrs May's latest attempt to win over Brexiteer backbenchers comes as an attempt to topple her by the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) appears to have faltered. The group's leaders, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, acknowledged on Tuesday they had failed to secure the backing of 48 MPs required to trigger a confidence vote in the prime minister's leadership.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times