Number 10 had hoped that if it could hold off the Cooper amendment again next week, then it could eke out a concession from the EU on the backstop. But as I say in The Sun this weekend, this approach has been complicated by Jeremy Corbyn’s soft Brexit plan.
This scheme, obviously, appeals to the EU: it would keep Britain in the customs union and following many of the rules of the single market. ‘The Labour party and the EU are operating in tandem to some extent, which is worrying for us’ frets one Cabinet Minister.
So, May needs to persuade Brussels that such a deal couldn’t get through because her government would collapse as soon as she proposed it.
If May can persuade EU leaders of this, which is far from certain, she then needs to try and get legally binding changes to the backstop out of them. This will be an even harder task. The EU is not inclined to give her this, as one minister close to the talks laments ‘they’re just very pissed off with her’.
But the UK is not actually asking for that much. As one Cabinet Minister argues, ‘If it is legally implicit that the backstop can’t last more than 5 years, why not make that politically explicit?’
The reason is that the EU don’t want to undermine the Irish government or give the UK a negotiating win. But if offering the UK something on the backstop is the price of getting a deal through parliament, the EU might—reluctantly—budge at the last moment.
What the EU won’t do is agree to replacing the backstop with ‘alternative arrangements’ as many Tory MPs want. So, if May can get this far, she’ll then need to persuade her own MPs to be flexible and back a deal.
May faces a formidable series of obstacles to getting a deal through. Her hope must be that as time ticks down, both the EU and her own backbenchers become more willing to compromise.