Theresa May wants to renegotiate the backstop. Why?

Downing Street has told Conservative parliamentary private secretaries that the PM will return to Brussels to “push back” on the contentious mechanism. 

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Theresa May has delayed the meaningful vote in order to return to Brussels and renegotiate the Irish backstop, the New Statesman understands.

Downing Street has told Conservative parliamentary private secretaries that the Prime Minister will return to Brussels to “push back” on its insistence that the legal mechanism to avoid a hard border – loathed by Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP – cannot be time-limited or left by the UK unilaterally.

Will it work? The short answer, as far as the EU27 are concerned, is no. This much has been clear throughout negotiations: Brussels and Dublin see the backstop as an insurance policy which would be redundant were it tweaked in the way Brexiteers want. They say that significant changes have already been made at the UK’s behest – namely adding a multilateral review mechanism and all-UK customs union – in a fruitless attempt to assuage Westminster’s concerns, and that they will not compromise further.

An even bigger block to renegotiating the backstop, however, is that it would involve opening up everything else in the binding Withdrawal Agreement already signed off by the EU27 to renegotiation: fishing, Gibraltar, and any number of other contentious issues. European leaders have made repeatedly clear that they will not do so.

The only change on offer, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made clear this morning, is to the non-binding political declaration on the future relationship. But in that very distinction lies the reason why May’s attempts to squeeze a concession out of Brussels that will buy off her MPs will fail: any such changes would be purely cosmetic, and the perceived problems with the binding treaty would remain. A European Commission spokesman confirms this afternoon that it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. For that reason, failure looks inevitable. May’s parliamentary problem won’t be going away anytime soon – vote or no vote.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.