Nearly one week on from Tory MPs uniting around a Brexit position and the cracks are starting to show. After Brexiteers and Remainers alike came together to vote for the Brady amendment on Tuesday calling for the backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements, Theresa May was triumphant that she could now tell Brussels there was a majority in the Commons for a Brexit deal so long as the EU was willing to play ball.
However, this weekend things hit a bump in the road after May penned an article for The Telegraph. In it, the Prime Minister said that the vote for the Brady amendment had shown there was majority support for her deal so long as the backstop was renegotiated – hinting that this could be done by a side agreement or codicil. Members of the eurosceptic European Research Group were quick to go on the offensive saying that May had led them up a garden path. What they said they would vote for was the Malthouse Compromise which seeks to replace the backstop with an alternative backstop which relies on technology to solve the border issue. Should May fail to make this a reality, Steve Baker and others insist that they will not vote for the Withdrawal Agreement when it returns.
The protests from Brexiteers have been quickly weaponised both by Labour MPs – who say it’s proof May should not pander to Brexit forces in her party and instead back a permanent customs union – and the EU, with negotiator Sabine Weyand tweeting that the comments suggest a concession on the backstop would not be enough. For now, however, No. 10 are keen to try and keep the Tory coalition alive. Last night, Downing Street announced the creation of an Alternative Arrangements Working Group designed to take forward Malthouse Compromise – Steve Baker, Marcus Fysh and Nicky Morgan will both sit on it.
The hope is that if Brexiteers like Baker and Fysh are brought into the tent and given civil service support they will feel listened to and work constructively with No. 10. However, should that fail then there is a real concern in government that what May managed to avoid last week will happen in a week’s time. The government successfully defeated the Yvette Cooper amendment which would have taken no deal off the table and forced the government to try and extend Article 50 if no deal looked likely. If Remain-leaning Conservative MPs believe the Brexiteers aren’t serious about finding a compromise, there’s a worry that when Cooper brings her amendment back to be voted on this Valentine’s Day more will support the plan and this time it might pass.