With the government on the brink of a full blown crisis, there was speculation that Theresa May would use today’s Brexit statement to the House to turn her ire on Brussels. In the end it wasn’t to be and the Prime Minister adopted a conciliatory tone – praising both sides – as she did her best to insist that it was business as normal.
After Dominic Raab’s fruitless trip to Brussels marked an impasse in the Brexit negotiations, the Prime Minister insisted that she did not believe the UK and the EU were actually so ‘far apart’ on the remaining issues. She told the House that with the negotiations had stalled over the Irish backstop, now was the time for ‘cool, calm heads to prevail’ and ‘a clear-eyed focus on the few remaining but critical issues that are still to be agreed’.
Those issues consist of the EU’s reluctance to agree to a UK-wide backstop that would see the whole of the UK remain in the customs union if no other trade deal was agreed; ‘the EU still requires a “backstop to the backstop” – effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy’. The second issue is whether the backstop is a temporary solution. With growing unease at the idea there will be no end date in the agreement, May said she needed ‘to be able to look the British people in the eye and say this backstop is a temporary solution’:
‘While I do not believe this will be the case – if the EU were not to co-operate on our future relationship, we must be able to ensure that we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely.’
May was keen to press the idea to the House that the backstop should not need to come into force anyway so these discussions were in a way all hypothetical. May did little to suggest that she was in a mood for walking away from the table for good – instead re-iterating her aim to strike a deal. The problem is there is so little trust now on the Tory benches that MPs will not vote for an unsatisfactory backstop on the grounds that it probably won’t have to be used. It follows that if Brussels refuse to move on the key two issues, May will only have two choices before her: to cave and face a revolt back home – or to walk.