It has been a catastrophic night for the Prime Minister here in Brussels. She was rebuffed by EU leaders in her request for a few weeks of fresh work by officials to formulate words of what she called “reassurance”, such that Tory Brexiter and DUP MPs could be confident that the backstop they hate would only ever be short lived if implemented.
“We do not want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation whatsoever” said EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
This means that the PM knows that, as and when she puts her Brexit plan to the Commons for a vote, more than 100 of her MPs will vote against it, plus the DUP and the opposition parties. She would lose by a colossal and humiliating margin of more than 200 votes. Her plan would be dead and the UK’s Brexit or no-Brexit future more uncertain than ever.
All EU leaders provided was a bit of carrot and a big stick to persuade recalcitrant MPs to think again and possibly back May’s and their Brexit plan. The carrot is that “preparations” on the future relationship with the EU could start a month or two earlier than scheduled, as soon as the UK and EU parliaments ratify the plan – rather than after Brexit day on 29 March 2019.
What EU leaders are trying to suggest with this concession is that they are raring to get on with the talks on the future trade and security relationship, so that there really should be no need for the backstop to take effect for more than a few months (perhaps!).
But Juncker also put the boot in, implying that if talks were to take years and years and years, such that the UK fell into a backstop with seemingly no end – potentially driving that feared wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and preventing the UK negotiating third-country trade deals – it would be the UK’s fault. How so?
Well Juncker said he listened to the recent debates in our parliament and realised neither the government nor MPs have a clue what kind of future relationship with the EU they want. And absent a coherent plan from the UK, that future relationship with the EU cannot be settled. So he begged the government to give him more coherent detail in the next few weeks about the future relationship we seek. And he warned – waving that stick I told you about – that the EU is advancing its preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
Juncker implied he was surprised May bothered to ask the 27 leaders for help – because their collective view having watched our MPs oppose her and their Brexit plan is that there is nothing further they can do to help her. Which surely means that May’s Brexit plan, constructed over 21 gruelling months, is not even on life support any longer. And the PM’s only choice now surely is to seek the will of MPs and the kind of Brexit or even no-Brexit (a referendum) they could coalesce around. And then having established what THEY want, sue for it with a disgruntled and disillusioned council of EU leaders.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page