Theresa May has told the Cabinet that she will seek to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with Brussels in order to secure binding changes to the Irish backstop.
With MPs due to vote this evening on the prime minister’s next steps – and Graham Brady’s government-backed amendment mandating her to replace the backstop with something else – the move is a clear play for support from Tory Brexiteers.
Many had been reluctant to support the 1922 Committee chairman’s proposal on the grounds that it was too vague and didn’t compel the government to do anything. May’s pledge to seek changes to the text of the divorce treaty itself is a recognition of that fact.
But it also ignores a much more significant fact that the prime minister herself has repeatedly acknowledged: the EU27 is unwilling to reopen the withdrawal agreement. At the very best they might have offered changes to the non-binding political declaration, additional legal assurances on their aspiration for the backstop to be temporary, or an annex or codicil to the treaty to that effect.
The political problem for May was that her very best still wasn’t good enough for the DUP or Conservative Brexiteers. The change they are demanding has never been on offer. Instead of reckoning with that truth, she has chosen to ignore it for the sake of internal party management.
There is plenty of evidence – until recently cited by May herself – that Brussels will not give her what she is asking for. And even if they were to take the Brady amendment’s passage as a mandate for re-opening the agreement itself, issues like Gibraltar would come back into play too.
All of this adds up to the same inescapable conclusion that has been obvious since last summer: Brussels is unlikely to give May what her party is asking for. The overwhelming likelihood is that parliament won’t be voting on a revised deal on 14 February, but yet another set of next steps.