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11 March 2019

The threat of a cliff-edge Brexit is the government’s only hope for passing its deal

With Brexit talks in deadlock, optimistic cabinet members hope to scare a majority into voting for May’s deal. 

By Stephen Bush

The Brexit talks are “deadlocked”, Downing Street has admitted, putting Theresa May on course for another heavy defeat when the withdrawal agreement returns to the Commons tomorrow.

Optimistic cabinet ministers split into two groups: those who think that the EU summit on 21 March will yield some kind of concession that allows the deal to pass, and those who think that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit will, eventually, create a majority where none currently exists for the withdrawal agreement.

The central problem for the concession camp is twofold: firstly, the British government is asking for something (a unilateral exit from the backstop) that the European Union cannot give, and secondly, it’s not at all clear to European diplomats that doing so would unlock a parliamentary majority at Westminster anyway.

On the first point: giving the United Kingdom a unilateral right of exit from the backstop means prioritising the internal politics of a departing member over that of Ireland, a remaining member state. That would raise existential questions about what, exactly, the point of EU membership is, raising the risk that other large Eurosceptic movements start to enjoy the political success of British Leavers.

On the second, it isn’t clear that the EU would get anything for its trouble. Yes, the Brady amendment, which backed the withdrawal agreement minus a backstop passed the House of Commons narrowly, but several Conservative MPs who backed Brady have made it clear that their objections extend well beyond the backstop.

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It means that the government’s hope of passing this deal lies with the second camp, the Scarers, and the hope that they can, somehow, keep the threat of a cliff-edge Brexit in play after this week is over in order to scare up a majority for May’s deal to prevent a no-deal exit.