At the very moment Conservative and Labour MPs are passionately proclaiming the need to work together, the two parties are locked in the elemental struggle for power after a major defeat, a vote of confidence in the government. This is Labour’s ritual act to stave off having to commit to a policy. For theirs is a unicorn with a mighty horn, a customs relationship that allows unilateral free trade negotiations and a single market relationship that restricts free movement.
On the other side a No 10 that doesn’t get it is suggesting that after giving Brussels another squeeze Mrs May will return to the Commons on Monday – and again and again if necessary – with much the same deal. Her justification? She’s the servant of the People who voted for Leave, not Parliament,
And if Labour loses its vote of confidence which they will, they threaten more votes of confidence to come.
Between them they seem to be carving out the ideal route to the No Deal that a large majority of MPs told us they were determined to avoid.
Might rescue come from Brussels after all? The Brussels corrs have been hard at work.
Brussels will insist London take the initiative in the aftermath of the vote. But senior EU officials at the heart of the negotiation see the result as a reality check on three fronts: Britain’s scheduled March 29 exit date; the durability of a draft agreement previously billed as a “best and last” offer; and the question of how to manage the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the Northern Ireland border, the most contentious topic. With so much up in the air, a minority in Brussels is now asking whether the EU’s focus should now be more focused on avoiding Brexit altogether.
Her devastating loss in Westminster suggests much broader changes may be needed to secure parliament’s approval. The most obvious “surgical” change would, in effect, set an end-date to the backstop plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The backstop is loathed by Brexiters, who see it as a “trap” that could keep the UK in a customs union with the EU for years. Some member states have no qualms with the concept of time-limiting the backstop. But they want any compromise to emerge from Ireland; there remains no desire to publicly overrule Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier. Mr Varadkar has made clear to Berlin and Paris that he would prefer a no-deal to a time-limited backstop, according to people familiar with the conversations. “He can blame the Brits for the mess,” said one. .
Others in Brussels expect that a cross-party consensus will be necessary in the Commons, which will require Labour votes and therefore lead to a softer version of Brexit. This would be based on a permanent customs union or Norway-like arrangements that would keep the UK in the bloc’s single market. The EU would want to wait for the path to a majority to be clear in Westminster before embarking on reopening negotiations.
Senior EU officials and diplomats have suggested that new legally binding assurances could be given on the temporary nature of the Irish backstop should a clear consensus emerge among MPs and the government over future of Britain’s relationship with Europe.
“Juncker will ask Mrs May what’s next?” a senior EU official said. “She must convince him that she has a plan to get the deal through.”
New wording could be added to or included within the withdrawal agreement to reassure MPs that the backstop of a partial UK-wide customs union would be in place only for a “short period” should trade talks not be finished by summer 2020, towards the end of a transition period.
Talks could be quick and relatively easy, diplomatic sources said, if tonight’s defeat leads to an “evolution” in government policy, possibly including a permanent full customs union and closer relationship to the single market that would allow changes to the current backstop text.
EU negotiators are already working on the assumption that Britain is “in Article 50 extension territory” and are expecting Mrs May to ask for a delay of up to three months to Brexit day, currently scheduled for March 29.
The second string of these reports, a bid to extend Article 50 and a plan for a soft Brexit based on cross party consensus, is the more plausible. Monday will also see the introduction of the “Nick Boles Bill” for Parliament “to take control” of the negotiations. This will provide the acid test of Theresa May – whether to treat over it or resist it at the behest of the substantial Brexiteer element in her cabinet or party.
“Party or country” Which is it Theresa?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London