Why a breakthrough on the Irish border isn’t all good news for Theresa May

Softening the backstop plan will get May off the hook in Brussels, but not with Tory Brexiteers.

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The intractable question of the Irish border continues to frustrate progress in Brexit negotiations. But for how much longer? Almost imperceptibly, the mood music from Brussels has changed key – and some believe compromise could be in the offing when talks resume later this month.

Stirring hopes of a breakthrough are recent briefings from the European Commission on the contentious backstop plan – the mechanism to prevent a hard border in the absence of a suitable trade or customs deal. For the EU and Ireland in particular, it is a vital insurance policy. The withdrawal agreement cannot be signed off without it. But for the Tory Brexiteers that have thwarted Theresa May at every turn, it is the allergen in the Prime Minister's fudge.

It is not hard to see why: in March, the Commission proposed a backstop that would have effectively kept Northern Ireland in the EU's customs territory and under the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Annexation was the watchword for the plan's many opponents on the Tory benches. Another of its consequences, a customs border in the Irish Sea, is anathema both to May and her allies in the DUP. It remains the biggest block to a deal.

So talk of the EU seeking to compromise would seem to merit a welcome. Last week, Michel Barnier and Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, have said they are prepared to do so if it averts a no-deal scenario (Varadkar says it is the backstop's end, not its means, that matter).

Since then, Brussels officials have signalled they would be willing to minimise the jurisdiction of the EU courts and customs officials in Northern Ireland. There could be a way – just about – to strike a backstop deal that does not violate the Prime Minister's red line on maintaining the constitutional integrity of the UK, and with it bring negotiations on withdrawal very close to the finish line indeed.

Trebles all round? Not quite. If the fallout from May's White Paper taught us anything, it is that her red lines are several miles from those of her Eurosceptic backbenchers. They do not think of the backstop in quite the same terms as the Prime Minister. Their belief is not that it is a European bluff or insurance policy against the UK government, but a No 10 bluff against Tory Leavers. To them it is a ruse to bounce them into a Brexit in name only for the rest of the UK. So no matter how the EU contorts the plan to suit May, it will not make her life easier.

If the Prime Minister is heartened by the softening of the EU stance then, as ever, she is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Agreement on the backstop might relieve the impasse in Brussels but will only exacerbate her problems in the Commons. But she cannot not reach an agreement if she is to get the deal she wants. The deal she wants is not the deal her MPs want. All roads lead to chaos.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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