Theresa May tried her best to persuade grumpy MPs that a Brexit deal was still in sight when she addressed the Commons this evening. With colleagues from across the Conservative party losing faith in No 10’s negotiating strategy, the Prime Minister insisted that ’95 per cent of the Withdrawal Agreement and its protocols are now settled’. The trouble is the remaining 5 per cent is the most difficult.
As May herself admitted, the main sticking point is ‘a considerable one’: the Irish border. With the Brexit talks at an impasse over the terms of the Irish backstop – the arrangement the UK would fall back on to avoid a hard border if no new trade deal is in place by the end of the transition – few believe a solution is in sight. May re-iterated her opposition to Brussel’s proposed Northern Ireland-only backstop – saying no UK prime minister could accept its consequence: a customs border down the Irish sea.
Despite this, the Prime Minister insisted that progress was being made. May said that since the Salzburg summit – which saw the UK side roundly humiliated – ‘the EU are now actively working with us’ on a proposal for a temporary UK-EU joint customs territory on this proposal. On the contentious issue of extending the transition period to help move things along, May tried to play down the idea by stating that nothing had been agreed.
Overall, the session is unlikely to have tipped the balance either way when it comes to May’s survival. The Prime Minister can take heart that unlike last week, she did receive some supportive questions from Tory MPs. But the fundamentals remain the same. The only thing that could change things dramatically in May’s favour is a concession from Brussels – and that remains out of sight.