Don’t expect much movement on Brexit this side of Valentine’s Day, I say in The Sun this morning.
There are two reasons for this. First, EU leaders are irritated with Theresa May. She signed off on a deal with them, assured them it could get through the Commons and then lost by a record margin. They are now sceptical when the British indicate that this or that change could get the deal through parliament. Despite the Brady amendment passing, the EU are still doubtful about what would get a deal over the line.
But there is another reason beyond their irritation why the EU are holding off from engaging with Mrs May. They want to see what happens when the Commons next votes on Brexit on the 14th of February.
It is expected that Yvette Cooper will bring back her amendment which would force the government to seek an extension to Article 50 if it can’t agree a deal with the EU.
If Cooper passed, then the EU could be certain that parliament would not allow the UK to leave the EU without a deal. At that point, the EU would have little reason to offer up a significant concession. They would know that there was no danger of either short-term no deal disruption, which would be particularly badly timed for the EU given the slow-down in the Eurozone economy, or of the UK ending up pursuing a radically different economic course after Brexit.
However, if the Cooper amendment failed again, the EU would have to confront the fact that this process really might result in no deal. They could lose a withdrawal agreement that is broadly favourable to them and the backstop would have created the very thing it is meant to avoid, the need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
In these circumstances, and with time ticking down, the EU would become more creative in its thinking. The hunt would be on for face-saving ways to try and salvage the agreement. This wouldn’t mean that the EU would suddenly drop the backstop entirely. But it might become more open to, say, a time limit on it.
With this change, the deal would stand a very decent chance of passing the Commons. I understand that there is a growing body of opinion in the ERG, the most powerful Brexiteer bloc in the Tory party, that a three year time limit for the backstop—which could be extended to 5 in exceptional circumstances—could be acceptable.
Not all members of the ERG would take this. But enough probably would to make up the missing numbers with Labour MPs without having to reach agreement with the Labour leadership.
Ministers and MPs need to hang tight. Now would be the worst moment to weaken the UK’s negotiating position.