Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

Theresa May backs plan to scrap Brexit backstop

British prime minister abandoned the agreement she’s spent the past 18 months negotiating with the EU

Protesters hold placards and flags as they demonstrate near the Houses of Parliament. AFP
Protesters hold placards and flags as they demonstrate near the Houses of Parliament. AFP

British prime minister Theresa May is backing a plan to ditch the most contentious part of her Brexit deal as she scrambles for a compromise all sides can support, with time running out before the UK leaves the European Union.

In a dramatic meeting on Monday, Mrs May effectively abandoned the agreement she spent the past 18 months negotiating with the EU and threw the weight of her government behind a move to re-write the deal.

Mrs May urged hundreds of Conservative politicians crammed into a meeting room inside Parliament to support the proposal, which would strip out the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border, wrecking a compromise she has agreed to with the EU in the hope of securing one with her own party.

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Her move is intended to win over hardline Brexit backers who joined with opposition members of Parliament on January 15 to reject her divorce package. It was the biggest government defeat in the House of Commons for more than a century and prompted two weeks of soul-searching and debate over how to resolve the impasse inside the government.

If the House of Commons does not ratify a Brexit agreement the UK will tumble out of the bloc with no new trading terms in place on March 29. That risks a recession, hit to the pound and crash in house prices, according to official analysis from the authorities in Britain.

Mrs May now hopes her Tory party will say clearly what it wants to change in the deal she struck with the EU. Her aim is to send a message to Brussels that the Irish border backstop must be ditched or radically redrafted, and persuade the EU to change position so that a new deal can pass through Parliament.

According to an EU official, though, the Brady amendment has little chance of persuading the bloc to make compromises. The proposal appears to only leave scope for the backstop to be overtaken by a better solution – of which there is no evidence of one at this point. It will be “extraordinarily difficult” for the UK to win concessions or remove the backstop unless it moves its own red lines, the official said.

Mrs May also faces major hurdles when her latest gambit is put to a test in a vote expected in the Commons on Tuesday.

Mrs May’s sceptic colleagues have said they are unlikely to be persuaded to support her call to scrap the backstop. And instead, a rival proposal could now win more backing from politicians who are determined to stop a no-deal Brexit and ensure that they have the power to delay the UK’s divorce from the EU, if necessary.

In an effort to appease those Tories who are proposing to join this movement to delay Brexit, Mrs May promised them on Monday they would have another chance to vote to stop Britain leaving the bloc without a deal, according to people in the room. She said the government will come back to make a statement to Parliament on the next steps if no Brexit deal has been agreed by February 13.

Even so, Brandon Lewis, the chairman of the Tory party, said he was “very optimistic and hopeful” that his colleagues will get behind the new backstop-killing amendment. “It will allow the prime minister to go back to Brussels with a clear message,” he told reporters after the meeting. “We want to get this vote through tomorrow.”

Updated: January 29, 2019 11:57 AM

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