The DUP are the crucial “dominoes” in May’s bid to win a second meaningful vote

Theresa May’s strategy to try to win MPs’ endorsement of the withdrawal agreement is a little clearer, arising out of hints she gave to Andrew Marr yesterday.

The strategy  is classic if conventional  politics, before a fundamentally divided, incoherent opposition, however formidable it now seems. It involves  narrowing  the gaps, wearing down opposition by a mixture of  project Fear (miles of traffic jams and English police on Ulster streets ) and project Farce (the shipping company with no ships), and defining a binary choice between the only deal in town (plus hopefully just adequate, face saving “assurances”),  and No Deal.

The starkness of the choice will become explicit only after the meaningful vote in a week’s time.

The DUP are “dominoes” because the backstop was tortuously created to support the Union.  To finally reject it – after “assurances,” – might provoke  a backlash among the majority of Conservative MPs if a snap general election is an outcome and leave the DUP chronically isolated at a time of extreme vulnerability for the Union. ( For the DUP this might involve isolating Sammy, but not for the first time).

The key advantage of May’s deal that its constrictions are almost as unpopular with the EU as with the majority of MPs, but it allows everyone to play a new game  for the longer term future, according to better understood rules. The strategy is brinkmanship  which emphasises the contrast between falling of the cliff of No Deal and  a new time frame that in two weeks time will surely be confirmed as extendable.   See Daily Telegraph ” exclusive.”

British and European officials are discussing the possibility of extending Article 50 amid fears a Brexit deal will not be completed by March 29, the Telegraph can reveal.

Three separate EU sources confirmed that UK officials had been “putting out feelers” and “testing the waters” on an Article 50 extension, even as the Government said it had no intention of asking to extend the negotiating period.

The discreet diplomatic contacts, described by one source as officials “just doing their homework” emerged as a minister broke ranks for the first time to raise the possibility of extending the talks.

But  the bombshell is this. For Art. 50 to be extended  the EU must be satisfied that the UK will seek a final deal compatible with the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration.  This must mean that Theresa May is on the point of rejecting No Deal specifically and clearly at last and calling the Brexiteers bluff inside her cabinet and party.  

The strategy is high risk but it might just work.

The FT reports

“Downing Street is exploring with the EU a separate statement with some kind of legal force that would commit both sides to a trade deal by a certain date, rather than seeking to put a time limit on the backstop itself. Mrs May will host the first of two drinks parties in Downing Street on Monday to try to woo her MPs; more than 100 Tory MPs have said they oppose the prime minister’s current compromise plan. Tory Eurosceptics and the Democratic Unionist party, which supports Mrs May in key votes, are likely to reject any pre-vote offer from Brussels that is short of legally binding undertakings.

Defeat looks certain for Mrs May next week, but Number 10 is working on a two-vote strategy, under which the EU would firm up its offer in a final dramatic move — possibly at a special European Council — ahead of a second Commons vote. Mrs May held a series of meetings with the DUP last week to try to soften the Northern Ireland party; her aides hope that if the unionist party’s 10 MPs back the deal, then many Tory MPs would follow”.

The government is persisting with  pressure on the DUP even though Nigel Dodds described the withdrawal agreement as ” poison” only yesterday.

BBC Newsnight’s  Nick Watt  underlines the importance of the DUP.  

“Downing St believes the DUP’s influence goes way beyond its ten MPs. Officials regard the Unionists as “dominos” – get them on board and Brexiteer Tories will start to return to the fold, potentially winning over Labour MPs minded to support the prime minister if she is within shouting distance of victory.

The mood is slightly better in Downing St because the prime minister has been left with the clear impression from EU leaders that they are determined to avoid no-deal.

One Whitehall source said: “There is a genuine sense they want to avoid no-deal. How they will help us is the big unanswered question.”

The hope is that next Monday or Tuesday – depending on the date of the parliamentary vote – the EU would issue a firm signal that the Northern Ireland backstop would not last indefinitely.

Under the backstop, which is designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Northern Ireland would be closely bound into the EU if the UK and the EU fail to agree a comprehensive new relationship by the end of the transition in December 2020.

The backstop is described as a temporary arrangement, but the EU is insisting it would last unless and until a replacement trade deal is agreed”.

As the Guardian reports..

“The all-important document is not expected before the Brexit debate begins on Wednesday, raising questions as to whether MPs will be discussing May’s deal with all the available information at the beginning of what is expected to be a five-day debate.”

This  may mean  the government will have to go to Brussels to receive  the EU’s final statement, after Mrs  May has lost the meaningful vote next Tuesday. The EU are reluctant to make their maximum offer before they know the extent of her defeat. She would then intend to put the EU’s final offer of assurances to MPs in a second vote. She said yesterday there would be a separate statement on Northern Ireland, which is reported in the FT.

As part of her three-part strategy, Mrs May is expected to offer guarantees to Northern Ireland businesses that they could continue to have full access to the British market in the event of the backstop being triggered, possibly by agreeing to apply new EU regulations to reduce the need for new border checks on the Irish Sea.

She is also expected to propose giving parliament oversight over Britain’s entry into the backstop via a Commons vote and on its duration, although Brussels would not accept any proposal to let MPs unilaterally decide to end the backstop.”

 

The Guardian continues..

“The UK wants the EU to stress its intention that a future trade agreement would begin by the end of 2021 at the latest, so rendering the unpopular Irish backstop irrelevant, but it is unclear whether it would be enough to win rebellious Tory MPs over.

No 10 recognises it will be very difficult to negotiate a free trade deal by the the time the post-Brexit transition period ends in December 2020 – but wants to see if it could get a commitment to a firm start date one year later.

“If we can’t get a free trade deal agreed by the end of 2020, then what’s the next jumping off point,” a Whitehall source said. “That’s the area we are poking about in.

“They cannot expect a legal commitment to land complicated negotiations by December 2021,” the EU official said. “We do not want to make ourselves legally culpable for a situation that we can’t control.”

Former UK negotiator David  Henig, director of the UK Trade project  makes some interesting suggestions for the transition period, writing  in the Daily Telegraph

A transition period with a rolling one year extension clause

The Irish will not change their demands for some mechanism to ensure no border on the island of Ireland. But the backstop as defined has technical as well as political problems, not least in the numerous pages of regulations that will need to be followed in Northern Ireland but not the rest of the UK, which don’t appear to have been studied in detail by anyone, and are quite likely to cause problems in being defined. Far better to allow the transition period to be extendable across the whole period of negotiations.

A joint report on the Ireland border

No two countries who are not both members of the EU have borders without infrastructure. Technology can help, but the solutions that have been put forward for the Ireland border are not sufficient to prevent infrastructure for product and customs checks. Not surprisingly there is increased tension on the island about what may happen in months to come. There will need to be a joint agreement on what is acceptable, and a good first start to this would be for both sides to sponsor a comprehensive report on all of the options, to issue within a year of the Withdrawal Agreement. This is likely to lead to a process which over time leads to a mutually acceptable solution.

A break clause of 5 years

Negotiators expect ups and downs in talks, but that ultimately we can reach solutions. In the case of the UK-EU talks however the suspicions of some on both sides, notably the UK, must be acknowledged. Many MPs simply don’t trust the EU not to lock us in to a disadvantageous arrangement from which we cannot escape. Preparing to go from deep integration to no-deal in months is risking economic shock, and no developed country should be having a discussion about whether it can supply medicines. However there should be a way of terminating the agreement if talks really can’t progress, so why not a break clause where either side can give five years notice. That would be sufficient to allow for proper preparation.

Committee of MPs to oversee negotiations

For all we know, the UK side has put forward all of these suggestions and been rebuffed. We know remarkably little about ho

We know remarkably little about how negotiations progressed, and the secrecy hasn’t helped, not least as our negotiators haven’t been able to say “all parties want to see this”. This must change, not least as allowing MPs proper engagement will also bind them more to the outcome. However it is done MPs should oversee negotiations, coupled with much greater public engagement. Negotiations are not public sport, but in the 21st century they are coming close…