Theresa May has been in Northern Ireland today attempting to ease concerns over her commitment to avoiding a hard border. The Prime Minister told business leaders in Belfast that while Parliament wanted ‘changes to the backstop as it currently exists’, her commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland was ‘unshakeable’.
However, May’s words also went some way to highlight the difference in expectation as to what No. 10 think is an acceptable change to the backstop – and what the Brexiteers in the European Research Group believe is acceptable. When pressed, May said she was not seeking to get rid of the backstop entirely as she saw it as an important ‘insurance policy’:
‘I am not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that does not contain that insurance policy for the future.’
This appears to fall short of what Eurosceptic MPs such as Steve Baker want to see changed. The ‘Malthouse Compromise’ plan has been endorsed by the ERG as calls for an alternative to the backstop. Under its proposals, technology would be used to deal with the border and eradicate the need for a backstop in the first place. Now Downing Street sources have been quick to insist that they are taking the ‘Malthouse Compromise’ (MH) seriously and May’s comments are compatible with that. In fairness, there is nothing stopping the government calling the MH arrangement an ‘alternative backstop’.
However, given the lack of trust between the Brexiteers and Downing Street, this will only increase concerns that Eurosceptic MPs are being led up a garden path when it comes to May negotiating their desired alternative. Already a number of Leave campaigners have voiced concern about her words. Notably, May’s comments today appear to be in sync with what Arlene Foster said about changes to the backstop this morning. Some Brexiteers could soon be left disappointed, again.