Brexiteers set May three ‘tests’ for EU deal support
As leader of influential Tory backbench committee also softens on backstop demands
Hardline Brexiteers have set Theresa May three “tests” that must be met in return for securing their support for her Brexit withdrawal agreement.
The prime minister suffered the biggest parliamentary defeat in more than 100 years in January when her deal was voted down by a majority of 230. Since then she has been working behind the scenes trying to secure concessions from the EU to time-limit the Irish border backstop, which she hopes will win over wavering Tories.
Until recently, her Democratic Unionist Party allies and members of the European Research Group had indicated they could not support her withdrawal agreement unless legally binding changes we made to the withdrawal agreement – something the EU has repeatedly ruled out.
But with Brexit less than a month away, Labour throwing their support behind a second referendum and growing talk Article 50 could be extended, pro-Brexit MPs fear their long-held dream could be ripped from their grasp just as it is about to be realised.
This has prompted a shift in tone in the past few days. Now in what Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times describes as “a significant intervention”, eight ERG lawyers, chaired by veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, have drawn up a document spelling out their demands, “the clearest sign yet that they are prepared to fall into line”, he says.
The document, drawn up in conjunction with the DUP and delivered to the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, demands a legally binding “mechanism” to escape the backstop, with a clear “exit route” and an unambiguous rewrite of the “language” in the government’s legal advice.
“Crucially, the ERG’s new red lines are not prescriptive about how this is to be achieved and give Cox considerable leeway to thrash out a deal”, says Shipman, but “by outlining the price of their support, they hope to give him greater ammunition to win concessions from the EU”.
Sir Graham Brady, leader of the influential 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, has also this weekend softened his opposition – and suggested he will recommend that MPs back May’s deal – if the prime minister secures new assurances on the Irish backstop.
In a “significant shift”, The Observer reports that “Brady and other leading Tory backbenchers – who fear the alternative to May’s deal would be a no-deal Brexit, a lengthy delay or a second referendum – now seem prepared to drop their demand on condition that they win reassurances that the backstop will be temporary and does not risk locking the UK into a permanent EU customs union”.
The BBC says getting the backing of Brady and the ERG for her deal would be a “major boost” for the prime minister “but would still not guarantee she could get it through Parliament”.
There remain a plurality of views within the ERG itself, with some members adopting a tougher approach and others preferring the UK leave without a deal at all.
It means “May could find herself relying on the votes of Labour MPs from Leave-voting parts of the country, who are in favour of Brexit but want guarantees from the PM that workers’ rights will not fall behind the EU after Britain’s departure” reports the BBC.
Reports coming from Downing Street suggest the prime minister could have two goes at getting her withdrawal agreement through the Commons. Government whips have told MPs to be back in Westminster on Wednesday, fuelling speculation the first of these could be this week.
Even if she gets approval for her deal this week, a limited extension to Article 50 is all but inevitable, however.
In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, indicated that a “technical” extension would be needed to implement a deal.
“Barnier's comments confirm the private view of a significant number of the Cabinet that a limited delay is now inevitable” says the Daily Telegraph, after Theresa May agreed to put the option to MPs if she fails to win a majority for her deal by 12 March.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has told cabinet colleagues that a delay of Brexit from 29 March to June is “very likely”, Ireland’s Sunday Independent quoted an unnamed minister as saying.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr, the International Development Secretary Liam Fox also did not rule out a short delay to Brexit, even if May's deal gets through, in order to get the legislation through parliament.
However, he also sought to allay the fears of Brexit-backing Tories that May's offer to MPs of a vote on delaying the UK's departure, if her deal does not get through Parliament, could scupper Brexit.
“To attempt to have a delay mechanism in order to thwart the process of Brexit itself is actually politically completely unacceptable,” he told Marr.
“And, as I have said before, would provoke a backlash amongst voters.”