Theresa May doesn’t yet have anything concrete to offer MPs who have concerns about her Brexit deal. On Marr this morning, May repeatedly talked about how she was seeking ‘assurances’ on the backstop. But she clearly hasn’t got them yet.
Interestingly, May indicated that the assurances she’s looking for are around a start date for the new relationship; rather than a time limit or clearer exit mechanism. This would mean that the backstop would not be ‘indefinite’ as there’d be a start date for the future trade relationship. However, this approach immediately raises two questions. First, would the future relationship apply to the whole of the UK or just Great Britain? Second, a future relationship that met the EU’s criteria for ending the backstop entirely would surely involve a greater degree of regulatory and customs alignment than many Tory MPs would accept.
May was on stronger ground when she contrasted the certainty of her deal against the ‘uncharted waters’ that would follow from rejecting it. She is right that no one can be certain what would happen next if her deal was rejected. Though, May wouldn’t engage with the question of whether she would try and bring it back in modified form if it was rejected first time round. (The answer is that she almost certainly will)
When Marr asked May if she would promise to step down if that would help get her deal through, she replied by referencing not just Brexit but her domestic agenda. This was another demonstration that she will resist like anything the suggestion that she should promise to go as soon as possible after March 29th to try and get her deal through; the thinking being that Tory MPs might be more prepared to vote for it if they knew that someone more to their liking would be negotiating the actual future relationship.
At the moment, the parliamentary arithmetic is firmly against her Brexit deal. If that is to change, May is going to need these ‘assurances’ she is seeking to be legally meaningful. She is also going to need an attitude change in parliament, for MPs to stop thinking that voting down her deal makes their preferred outcome—whether it be a second referendum or no deal—the most likely outcome. But this morning was a reminder that May is not a natural saleswoman and that she will need something new to change minds.