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14 January 2019

Has Theresa May found a way to escape a landslide defeat?

An amendment to tomorrow’s meaningful vote aims to make the Irish backstop temporary – but it’s a non-starter in Westminster and Brussels.

By Patrick Maguire

Ahead of tomorrow’s meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, Theresa May’s best hope is of snatching a narrow defeat from the jaws of an enormous one. Tory backbencher Andrew Murrison believes he has found a way to pull it off. 

Murrison, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, has tabled an amendment to Tuesday’s motion, the effect of which would be to make MPs’ approval of the deal conditional on Brussels setting an expiry date of 31 December 2021 on the Irish backstop, by means of a legal codicil to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Will it work? We know that both Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP are unwilling to support a deal that includes a backstop that lacks either a time limit or a unilateral exit clause, which Murrison’s amendment – which is backed in private by several ministers – seeks to redress. He believes it could help Arlene Foster’s ten MPs overcome “the understandable difficulties they have the Withdrawal Agreement”. Should they return to the government fold, then dozens of Tory rebels will follow. 

The reality, however, is much less straightforward – and much less rosy for the Prime Minister. Brussels and Dublin have hitherto been steadfast both in their refusal to accept any sort of time limit on the backstop, which, as far as they are concerned, would defeat its purpose as an all-weather insurance policy. Murrison’s amendment seeks something they will not give. 

Nor does the DUP deem a codicil a sufficient legal guarantee. Its stance is the same as it ever was: a reopening of either the Withdrawal Agreement itself, or nothing (which neither May nor more pertinently Brussels is presently willing to entertain, and parliament cannot bind the latter body to do anything or alter the agreement by fiat anyway). Though they might yet back Murrison’s amendment – a DUP source says it is the sort of thing that could “gain traction” – they would do so in the hope of sending a message to Brussels that the backstop must be ditched or significantly altered, rather than endorsing this specific plan to do so.

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“It at least expresses explicitly a view of parliament as firmly against the backstop,” they say. “I imagine the EU needs a concrete expression of that before budging their position; no point, from their perspective, of doing so unless they are certain it would lead to a deal.” Given the European Research Group has already declared they will not back the amendment – which it suspects is a Downing Street ruse – it is very unlikely that such a majority will be forthcoming. Murrison’s amendment won’t provide an escape route in Westminster or Brussels. 

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