Theresa May’s week has gone from bad to worse. In order to win the confidence vote tabled against her on Wednesday, May had to make several promises to her MPs: not to fight the next election, to get the DUP back on side – and to find a legally binding solution to the Irish backstop. The latter pledge appears to have already hit the buffers after a disastrous night for May at the EU council summit.
The Prime Minister attended the summit on Wednesday evening in the hope of securing new concessions to her Brexit deal. She asked the EU 27 to ‘work together intensely’ to tweak the deal – with the UK suggesting a new target for a trade deal by the end of 2021, in order to show the backstop was not indefinite.
However, EU leaders – along with the Commission – were thoroughly unimpressed by the whole thing. It seems that rather than be enticed to help May they questioned whether they should move forward at all – criticising the Prime Minister for not being clear – when questioned – about what she needs. There was a feeling in Brussels that May cannot say what will get this deal over the line, so what’s the point trying to help?
Matters are so bad that after the address the EU27 actually removed supportive lines from a draft statement drawn up to help ease British concerns. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker then added insult to injury by using a press conference to have a go at May for her ‘nebulous and imprecise’ approach. It’s not even clear there will be a Brexit summit in January.
So, has May really run out of road this time? It could still be the case that Brussels come round to the UK side’s thinking over Christmas. Figures like Juncker do not wish to appear too open to renegotiation in part because were they to move now, Brexiteers in Parliament could pressure May to demand even more concessions. But it’s clear that this trip has only served to undermine May’s approach– at a time when she desperately needed a boost. If this deal is to have any chance of passing Parliament, the backstop arrangement will need to be amended. Without that, the most likely scenarios are a second referendum, no deal or/and a general election. No.10 will be hoping for some supportive language from EU leaders today before everyone heads home from the summit.