Politics is all about words, which only sometimes mean what they seem to say. So if you took what the DUP leader in Westminster said on my show last night you would think that just maybe there is a route through the current parliamentary chaos for the PM towards a Brexit deal that MPs could approve.
The DUP’s Nigel Dodds told me:
“Well I think that the Prime Minister if I may say so maybe is extending a bit of an olive branch to us in the sense that she is now sitting down with us, acknowledging that we have an issue, acknowledging that it’s not just an issue we have but many in her party are now saying that she’s listening and she’s now prepared to go out she says to get those legal changes that are necessary.”
The mots justes in what Dodds said are “legal changes”. Following a meeting he had with her, he thinks she will try to secure legally binding changes to the Ireland backstop so that either it does not drive a regulatory wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, or it is strictly time limited or there is a break clause unilaterally exercisable by the UK.
And the PM seemed to confirm that offer when she said last night on the steps of Downing Street that “when I go to the European Council tomorrow I will be seeking legal and political assurances”.
How likely is the PM to secure any of that from EU leaders in Brussels, where she has headed today? The answer is that if Dodds and his colleagues continue to be purists about all of this, there is not the remotest chance. Because, as Dodds has previously said to me, only changes to the so-called Withdrawal Agreement would deliver absolute legal certainty. And the draft conclusions to the EU Council where May is a supplicant already say the Withdrawal Agreement will not be altered.
So the question is whether, after EU27 leaders sign up to some kind of codicil or addendum that says the backstop cannot be forever, which they will do, and when there is an accompanying opinion that the addendum has legal significance, which again there will be, Dodds and his colleagues suddenly announce they have achieved a great victory.
Will they – to avert a total impasse that could lead to a brutally hard Brexit, or no Brexit or a general election – pander at last to a constructive ambiguity for which the EU is rightly and widely celebrated? Or will they continue to shout that the union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain is being betrayed?
For Theresa May pretty much everything hinges on how and where Dodds and the overall leader of his party Arlene Foster jump – especially after 117 of May’s MP colleagues voted yesterday to get rid of her. The reason is that the DUP’s opposition to her Brexit plan provides cover and substantial justification for Tory Brexiter MPs who also hate the plan. If the DUP is brought round, the PM won’t be home and dry. But the idea of some version of her Brexit plan EVENTUALLY being approved by MPs would not be as laughably absurd as it seemed only yesterday.
To be clear, I am not saying that today in Brussels the PM will get a concession from EU leaders that solves all her problems. But what she is attempting is no longer Mission Impossible, even if it remains Mission Improbable.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page