Theresa May can’t please everyone with backstop balancing act

Her respective commitments to EU and to Brexiteers over time limit can’t be reconciled

Six months after Theresa May agreed to a backstop arrangement to prevent a hard border, and three weeks ahead of a crucial EU summit, she is planning to publish her proposal for the backstop on Thursday. As so often during the Brexit negotiations, however, she must first clear the hurdle of her own ministers in a cabinet subcommittee amid snarling from Brexiteers on her own backbenches.

Downing Street on Wednesday insisted that the backstop will be time-limited, a key Brexiteer demand, but the prime minister has promised Brussels that the backstop will remain in place “unless and until” another solution for the Border is found. These two commitments are clearly contradictory and Brexiteers fear – probably correctly – that the backstop will only end when the EU agrees that it should.

The EU’s proposed language on the backstop earlier this year envisaged it as an arrangement specific to Northern Ireland, which would remain aligned with the customs union and parts of the single market until another agreed solution to keep the Border open is found. Britain’s proposal is expected to call for the backstop to be applied to the whole of the UK, so that no new regulatory barriers are erected between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.


EU negotiators reject the idea of a UK-wide backstop on the grounds that it amounts to cherry-picking parts of the single market without accepting the full responsibilities of membership. This special arrangement, Brussels says, can be extended to Northern Ireland because of its special circumstances but will not be available to the whole of the UK.

For their part, Brexiteers fear that, unless Britain can unilaterally place a time limit on the backstop, the country will remain indefinitely in the customs union and subject to EU single market rules it will have no part in shaping. They argue that, with Britain in the customs union and subject to EU regulations for goods, the EU will have little incentive to agree a comprehensive trade deal to cover services, where Britain enjoys a trade surplus with the EU.

As she faces the possibility of defeat next week on amendments to the EU withdrawal Bill at the hands of Conservative Remainers, May has succeeded in disappointing her own backbenchers on both sides of the Brexit debate. At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, the benches behind her were filled with row after row of despondent faces, Brexiteers and Remainers united in their lack of enthusiasm for their leader.