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What Olly Robbins has revealed about May’s Brexit plan

12 February 2019

8:41 PM

12 February 2019

8:41 PM

My colleague Angus Walker has a grade A scoop on how Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, thinks the PM may be able to rescue her Brexit deal.

The headlines are these.

1) He expects MPs to be presented with a choice in March of her deal or a potentially very lengthy delay to Brexit. This is significant since even today the PM denied she was remotely contemplating a Brexit postponement.

2) Robbins concedes that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop was conceived as a ‘bridge’ to the long-term trading relationship between the UK and EU. This will be explosive because Tory Brexiters always feared the PM secretly saw some version of the customs union as the long term destination for the UK.

3) Robbins’s remarks that in the Withdrawal Agreement he would like the words ‘subject to the future trade deal’ inserted after the word ‘necessary’ is especially gripping. It appears to refer to Article 1 of the Northern Ireland protocol which says ‘this protocol sets out arrangements necessary to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation, avoid a hard border and protect the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions.’

This has a double importance. First that Robbins seems to think there is some point in trying to re-negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, though quite frankly not in the way that Tory Brexiters expected after they backed the Brady Amendment.

Second, his ambition appears to be to use such a reopening to make it more explicit that the backstop could be superseded by a trade agreement, and to lessen the risk that the Good Friday Agreement’s insistence on North-South co-operation – in environment, health, agriculture, transport, education, energy, telecommunications, inland fisheries and other areas – could keep the UK in the backstop forever.

But Brussels sources see a sinister plot here, to undermine the EU’s role as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, by making it seemingly explicit that a trade agreement could supersede these areas of North-South co-operation.

They would also interpret a reworking of the backstop in that fashion as increasing the negotiating strength of the PM to secure a version of her Chequers plan. One described is as an attempt to ‘leverage North/South co-operation to cherry pick the future relationship and get two out of the four freedoms [for goods and some services].’

As such it would be flatly rejected by the EU, and it may infuriate the many Tory Brexiter MPs who hated Chequers.

4) There will be questions raised by MPs about whether Robbins is acting and speaking on behalf of the PM or in a more freelance capacity, given that his words on Brexit are not consistent with hers. One interpretation hurts her, the other hurts him.

5) Robbins’ judgement in intoning about all of this in the bar of a Brussels hotel that is routinely populated by journalists, like ITV News’ Angus, will be seen by many as odd.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page


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