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21 January 2019

As May seeks to renegotiate her Brexit deal, her MPs fear concessions could split the Conservative Party

Back to the backstop.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May will unveil her Plan B for Brexit and, who’d have thought it, it looks an awful lot like Plan A: to seek concessions on the backstop in order to win back the support of pro-Brexit Conservatives and the DUP.

There are two problems here: the first is that there can be no agreement without some form of backstop. The function of the backstop is to act as an insurance policy, that, come what may, means the regulatory and customs alignment facilitating an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will endure.

Any negotiated Brexit that excludes a backstop could never be signed off by any Irish government of any hue, and any negotiated Brexit that excludes a backstop would undermine the central strategic priority of successive British governments towards Northern Ireland since 1985.

The second problem is that even if May could get concessions on the backstop, it wouldn’t in and of itself be enough to overcome the number of Conservative rebels whose objections to the agreement go well beyond the Irish border. There is no negotiated exit that can pass the House of Commons through Tory votes alone.

But the view from Downing Street and indeed much of the cabinet is that May cannot make the necessary concessions over the customs union, let alone the single market or holding another referendum, without splitting the Conservative Party. What some of the cabinet’s softer Brexiteers think, however, is that while May cannot impose a cross-party agreement herself, if one emerges from the House of Commons a deal can be reached without shattering the Conservative Party.

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Are they right? What we’ll find out over the next week (the next set of votes are on 29 January) is whether that cross-party no deal majority can do anything more concrete than pass sternly worded motions saying that no deal is bad. We start the week with two major backbench initiatives – one from Yvette Cooper, one from Dominic Grieve – and there will likely be others.

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Cooper is proposing a very narrow amendment to give voice to a simple bill that, in the event of not reaching an agreement by the end of February would mandate the government to seek an extension of Article 50. Grieve’s proposal would give parliament the ability to propose not just one bill but a series of indicative votes and other measures. It is more radical than what Cooper is proposing and therefore less likely to pass.

But even Cooper’s proposal might be too far for the House of Commons. Don’t forget that her much more limited proposal only managed a small majority, and one dependent on the abstention of Labour Leavers. This new proposal is asking MPs to actually proactively do something, which could be a bridge too far. The great hope among MPs of all parties who fear a no-deal Brexit is that parliament will come together to stop one from happening. It may be that what the next week shows is that parliament isn’t capable of agreeing where to go next on Brexit any more than the cabinet is.