Theresa May stakes the UK’s future on a useless concession from the EU

Having been rebuffed by EU leaders, the Prime Minister restated her hope for “further clarification” on the Irish backstop – but that won’t change the parliamentary arithmetic.

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Nothing has changed? Theresa May has insisted that talks with Brussels over the Irish backstop are not over, despite the flat rejection of her attempts at renegotiation by EU member states last night.

Speaking at a press conference on the margins of the European Council summit, the Prime Minister staked a claim to two small victories. She said that the EU had agreed to “work speedily on a future relationship or alternative arrangements” that would avert the need for a hard border and with it the backstop; and that “future clarification and discussion” of whether it could be formalised as temporary – the big bone of contention for the DUP and Tory rebels – was possible.

On the first point, May stressed that the EU’s agreement – in the form of a set of summit conclusions signed off by the 27 member states last night – had “legal status”. That might be true, but the fundamental problem remains that the only legal status the MPs she is trying to convince have any truck with is that of the withdrawal agreement itself, which is not up for renegotiation. In that respect, whether May gets her future clarification or discussion on the backstop is irrelevant: it won’t change the dynamic at home at all. She is staking her future, and that of the country, on the hope of a useless and not particularly substantive concession from the EU.

For that reason, it’s increasingly hard to see how the Prime Minister can realise another aspiration she repeated, when asked about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit: “I believe it is better to leave with a good deal and the deal we have is a good deal.”

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.