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Why Britain appears to be moving backwards on Brexit

London Letter: UK and EU are at odds once again as a result of growing risk of no-deal

As MPs prepare to vote next week on how to proceed with Brexit after last week's rejection of Theresa May's deal, London and Brussels are marching in opposite directions.

Immediately after the defeat the prime minister invited MPs from all parties into Downing Street, signalling that a softer Brexit could be on the cards. EU negotiators made clear that the political declaration attached to the withdrawal agreement could be amended to accommodate any changes to Britain’s negotiating red lines.

And after losing the support of a third of Conservatives and the DUP's 10 MPs, May appeared to be seeking to form a new majority for a Brexit deal with the help of Labour votes.

After meeting groups of MPs last week, however, May's effective deputy David Lidington, her chief-of-staff Gavin Barwell and environment secretary Michael Gove concluded that such a strategy was doomed. Without the support of Jeremy Corbyn, too few Labour MPs were prepared to cross the floor to vote with the government on a Brexit deal even if it included a permanent customs union and guarantees on labour and environmental rights.


Even if May could secure a majority to approve the deal it was unlikely that all the Labour rebels would continue to vote with the government as it passed the implementation legislation that would follow.

So by last weekend May and her cabinet had decided that the only way to get the Brexit deal through was with Conservative and DUP votes.


This meant the prime minister would have to return to Brussels to seek concessions on the Northern Ireland backstop that would win over hardline Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP. It soon became clear that nothing short of a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism would persuade a sufficient number to change their minds.

In Brussels, EU negotiators were still talking this week about the political declaration as the key to securing support at Westminster for the withdrawal agreement. In Downing Street, however, the focus was on the withdrawal agreement itself and the possibility of reopening it to change or even replace the backstop.

When Poland's foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz floated the idea of a five-year time limit on the backstop, it was shot down immediately by Ireland, Germany and the European Commission.

In public, in private and in secret, Dublin rules out any time limit or unilateral exit mechanism. This position is shared by EU negotiators, although some senior EU officials have mused in private about the possibility of a 15- or 20-year time limit.

Among the amendments tabled ahead of next Tuesday's vote is one from Andrew Murrison, the Conservative chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which would approve the withdrawal agreement on condition that the backstop has a time limit.

Some close to the prime minister believe the amendment offers an opportunity to win a majority for a proposal which she could then present to the EU as the shape of a deal she can deliver at Westminster. Faced with the possibility of avoiding the no-deal cliff-edge and resolving Brexit quickly, EU leaders would start negotiating the length of the time limit.

There are two risks to this strategy: the difficulty of persuading enough hardliners that a time limit is sufficient; and the likelihood that the EU will flatly reject the proposal.

Negotiating period

Labour's Yvette Cooper has tabled an amendment that would allow MPs to debate and vote on a Bill she has published that would instruct the government to extend the article 50 negotiating period until the end of the year if the prime minister fails to win parliamentary approval for a Brexit deal by February 26th. The price of the Labour leadership's support, which would ensure its success, may be to extend article 50 only until the end of June.

Even if the EU is unwilling to tear open the withdrawal agreement to win the approval of Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP and no alternative plan can win majority support at Westminster, most MPs are determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit. The EU would almost certainly agree to postpone Brexit by up to three months but would be reluctant to go further simply to give Westminster more time to come to terms with itself.

This is why a growing number of MPs on both sides are moving towards the conclusion that if this House of Commons is unable to find a way through Brexit, it may be time for a general election that hands the task to a new one.