Will “more time” do it for Theresa May and the rest of us? The option of a longer transition is intended to provide more reassurance that special measures would not be needed to avoid a hard border — even if the UK and the EU fail to implement a new trade deal by the end of 2020. Because the EU is mildly encouraging, the chorus of opposition in Westminster is all the louder. Remainers are as dead against as Leavers at the suggestion of a “take it or leave it” motion to approve any withdrawal agreement that might yet be struck before the end of the year. The 250 or so middle of the roaders fear deadlock and collapse the longer it stretches out.
But Danny Finkelstein, shrewd veteran campaigner, sees strengths in May’s weaknesses and a homely precedent in how to square circles over the backstop – “ remember “the diamond table”?
I will never sit down with Gerry Adams,” said the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party in 1997. Then, in 2007, Ian Paisley did. Which produced another problem. Where should the two men sit?
Tony Blair’s negotiator, Jonathan Powell, relates that a crucial meeting, which ten years of talks had been building up to, was nearly scuppered by a dispute over where the two men should sit — opposite each other (Paisley’s demand, to show they were still rivals), or next to each other (Adams’s demand, to show that they were equals).
Finally an official had a brilliant idea: a diamond-shaped table. The two men could sit at the apex, both next to each other and opposite each other at the same time. The meeting went ahead.
On May’s “strengths”
The Brexiteers can’t get rid of her. The hardliners are perfectly well aware that if they did get (enough MPs’ letters to force a leadership challenge) Mrs May would win the resulting vote of confidence. In other words, the sword of Damocles hanging over her is made of rubber.
If they did get rid of her it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.
If there isn’t a deal, there may not be a Brexit. This is leverage over the hardliners ironically provided to Mrs May by last year’s terrible general election result.
Parliament might force either a second referendum or a general election if the alternative is a no-deal exit that arises entirely from the stubbornness of the Brexiteers. This appreciation underpins Michael Gove’s decision to back the prime minister, and may shift other hardliners as the threat to their project becomes apparent.
Four. There is a dilemma ahead for Labour MPs. If Mrs May secures a deal, Labour will want to vote it down in order to force an election. If this fails they may have to choose between two very uncomfortable options: voting with hardliners for a chaotic no deal or choosing a second referendum.
The issue of the Irish border is the weakest point of the EU’s negotiating armour. In almost every other area their position is rock solid and ours pretty hopeless. But on Ireland it is slightly different. If there isn’t a deal, there will be a border in Ireland. So the only way of avoiding one is to have a deal.
This doesn’t matter if Ireland doesn’t really matter to them. But, of course, if it doesn’t then the issue is negotiable. Yet if Ireland does matter to them, then they have to get a deal, which means it makes sense to compromise. Not that they necessarily will.
In other words, however bleak the position looks, however stuck we are, it isn’t entirely over. There is room for movement, new ideas and fresh understanding. It may still be worth trying to build a diamond table.
Seems clear doesn’t it? But there’s a contrary view from Peter Foster, Europe editor of the Daily Telegraph.
Mrs May is in a corner. The dreaded Irish backstop threatens to set off a constitutional unravelling of the United Kingdom which she is adamant she will not set in train.
At issue is the EU’s demand – in order to guarantee that the border which disappeared under the Good Friday Agreement does not come back – that Northern Ireland stays in the customs and regulatory territory of the EU if no better trading arrangement can be found.
This would mean leaving part of the UK in the EU’s regulatory orbit and putting up a customs border in the Irish Sea. Mrs May says she will not do it, just as none of the other 27 EU leaders would ever do it.
So the solution? A temporary customs union with the EU that would obviate the need for customs checks and act as a bridge to new trading arrangements. These are still to be negotiated, or even scoped out to the mutual satisfaction of both parties, but they will emerge in the fullness of time.
But herein lies the problem. To make this work, Mrs May needs the Brexiteers – indeed the 17.4m voters who voted to leave – to trust her. To believe her assurances that this is a stepping stone to the future, not a final destination.
By the same token, given the EU’s refusal to give up on its backstop, she needs her Democratic Unionist allies in Belfast and indeed Unionists in Scotland and Westminster, to trust that that backstop will never kick in.
The offer to extend transition by a year to the end of 2021, and perhaps even leave the door open to further extensions, is designed to give Unionists greater confidence that this will indeed never happen. But there are no legal guarantees. They need to trust her on this.
But it may be too late for that. The failure to set and articulate a realistic path to life outside the EU may now finally have caught up with the prime minister: too many red lines, too many broken promises. And without trust, you cannot lead.
Pity the poor laypeople who still might have to decide again one way or another. Jenni Russell The Times has spotted a different way form the maze of bewildering terms such as backstop, customs union, single market, Canada and Norway?
Researchers at King’s College London have come up with an ingenious way to see through the fog. They have just re-run a representative survey of 900 people first carried out last year. Instead of asking people which abstract solution they preferred (WTO, Canada etc), all of which now have emotive connotations and political loyalties, respondents were asked to rank which reciprocal rights they wanted; free movement for work or holidays, free health care across the EU, frictionless trade with the single market in exchange for budget payments, and so on.
Stripped of their political associations, it turns out that the most popular choices correspond most closely to membership of the European Economic Area, but outside the customs union: Norway’s position. People placed free trade with Europe above any other factor. Restricting freedom of movement was less important, as long as EU visitors had health insurance and no rights to public services without a job. Respondents also wanted to make free-trade deals independently of the EU. Holidaying in Europe without visas came high up the list.
Here they prefer the EEA to all other options but its key disadvantages were not spelt out. It is outside the customs union so it requires intrusive checks at all EU borders, and the Irish border problem remains. It also means accepting the EU’s rules without deciding them.
The survey shows us how little it might take to swing people behind staying in the EU or retaining the closest ties: using present EU rules to restrict immigration, proving that new free trade is worth much less than our deal now. This focus is what we desperately need if we are to avoid the worst kind of Brexit.
If you’re still interested you might like to feel your way down the tower of Babel
Five Conservative ex-cabinet ministers, including Boris Johnson and David Davis, have signed a letter to Theresa May urging her to reject both an Northern Ireland backstop and, crucially, an all-UK version. Johnson and Davis have signed it even though they were in cabinet when the government published its own plan for a UK-wide backstop.
The other three former cabinet ministers who have signed the letter are Priti Patel, Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson. And Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Tory backbenchers, is also a signatory.
On the backstop it says:
Talk of either a UK or a Northern Irish backstop is inimical to our status as a sovereign nation state. Both are unnecessary: indeed they are a trap being set by the EU which it is vital we do not fall into.Using existing techniques and processes, with political co-operation, we can ensure that trade continues between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The necessary procedures can all be implemented within the existing legal and operational frameworks of the EU and the UK. Rational and pragmatic approaches can ensure that trade across the border is maintained. There need be no threat to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
The signatories say the PM should not “engage in a show of resistance and a choreographed argument followed by surrender and collapse into some version of the backstop and Chequers.”
Instead we urge you to say to the EU at the Summit: “Let us agree that we need to reset our negotiations. Our objective is a free trade agreement that benefits the UK and EU and millions of our citizens.
Former No 10 chief of staff Nick Timothy , sacked after the general election debacle, a Chequers opponent.
Once the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, the EU will shred Chequers faster than a Banksy painting. We will be told we need to sign up to more European laws, accept European Court rulings, adopt lax immigration rules, make annual payments and even, perhaps, remain in the Customs Union after all.
This is why the backstop is dangerous. Right now we are being made to choose between the undemocratic partition of our country, or an all-UK backstop. Later, we will be forced to choose between accepting Chequers Minus, or getting stuck with the backstop for good.
No deal is better than partition or permanent vassalage. We must resist the backstop and move, quickly, to Canada Plus. Time is short and the window is closing: we have weeks to put things right.
Former Conservative minister Nick Boles described extending this period as as “desperate last move” and warned that Mrs May was losing the support of the Tory party. The Leave Means Leave campaign said a longer transition would give the EU “zero incentive to negotiate anything and gives Brussels the power to force whatever they want on to the UK
Boles suggested the party would not tolerate extending Britain’s annual payments into the EU budget for another year. “So the government is going to propose a €17bn extension to the transition but refuse a £2 billion bail out of universal credit [social benefits] — good luck with that
Former Lab transport sec Andrew Adonis, strong Remainer
Decoded, Nick Boles & Nicky Morgan are trying to replace Mrs May with Michael Gove who will pledge ‘Norway for now’ – telling the Brexiters it’s the only alternative to people’s vote to ‘remain’ & they can rip it up in a while, while telling ‘remainers’ they have a bit more cake
Keir Starmer, Labour Brexit spokesman
Labour doesn’t accept that the choice facing parliament will be between whatever deal Theresa May cobbles together or no deal. That is not a meaningful vote and ministers can’t be allowed to silence parliament. MPs must be given the opportunity to scrutinise, consider and, where appropriate, amend any resolution the government puts forward.
Jeremy Corbyn Lab leader
We are leaving the EU, but we will not support a deal cobbled together by a divided and chaotic Tory government if it’s going to make life tougher for millions of people
That’s why we have an alternative plan for a Brexit that guarantees jobs, rights and protections with a new deal with the single market, ensures no hard border in Ireland and supports UK manufacturing with a new customs union.
Corbyn is right to say that Labour’s Brexit policy is not the same as the government’s. One key difference is that Labour wants to stay in a customs union with the EU for good, although some details of how this would work are unclear, because as part of the plan the party also wants a say in how the EU would conduct future trade deals.
But in other respects there is less clarity. Labour does not want to remain in the single market, but it wants to keep the benefits of the single market – a position that runs counter to EU objections to cherry picking (as set out yet again only this morning by Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg
On a possible take it or leave it government motion to approve the withdrawal agreement deal.. This conflicts with the pledge to have a “ meaningful vote.”
Nicky Morgan, the Remain-voting Conservative chair of the Commons Treasury committee, is saying about the government’s move.
This appears to be an attempt by the Executive to frustrate our sovereign Parliament – it is climsy, it won’t succeed & it shows how hollow ‘taking back control’ was for some people.
Andrea Jenkins Cons MP, passionate Brexiteer
In June 33 MPs and I wrote to the Prime Minister setting out our redlines. One of them was we would not accept any extension of the transition period. This ludicrous suggestion coming out of Number 10 and the EU, must be stopped.
Leading Remainers on the prospect of being denied a meaningful vote
“It’s about honesty, because one way of reading this is to suggest that the government is trying to renege on clear assurances that were given at the time,” he said.
Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, said the government “got defeated the last time” they tried to restrict the meaningful vote, adding: “They won’t get away with it. Parliament is going to insist on using its proper authority.”
On paying more to stay in longer
Helen McEntee, the Irish Europe minister, was asked on the Today programme this morning about the UK having to pay more to the EU if the transition were extended. That would have to be discussed, she said diplomatically. Then, asked about reports saying the UK would have to pay around £10bn extra, she replied:
I don’t have a figure to hand. That would have to be discussed and negotiated between the UK and the [European commission’s] task force. Obviously there are a number of programmes and a number of commitments that are there.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London