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Brexit: Theresa May plans last ditch move to get Eurosceptics behind her withdrawal plan

Plans could include strengthening parliament’s power to say when and if the country enters into the hated Irish backstop

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 05 December 2018 14:50 GMT
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Downing Street is planning a last-ditch move to persuade Brexiteers to back Theresa May’s deal despite the hated Irish “backstop” arrangement.

Plans could include strengthening parliament’s power to say when and if the country enters into the backstop, though a final decision on any new approach is yet to be taken.

Downing Street officials confirmed Ms May will continue meeting Conservative MPs on Wednesday and Thursday in a bid to hear concerns and persuade them to back her plans.

It comes after a motion passed by the Commons on Tuesday night made the hard Brexit sought by many Eurosceptics harder to achieve, with Ms May’s lieutenants now able to warn that her plan represents the cleanest break from the EU possible.

Reports emerged on Wednesday that Downing Street is considering giving a “parliamentary lock” to MPs before the backstop arrangement can be entered.

Under the current proposal, the backstop comes into force if at the end of the Brexit transition period, no new trade deal has been agreed between the UK and EU – but it would mean Britain being locked into the backstop’s conditions, including a customs union, until Brussels agrees that a suitable new arrangement has been found to keep the Irish border open.

Asked about the idea of a parliamentary lock on entering the backstop, Ms May’s spokesman pointed to the prime minister’s words in the Commons from the previous day.

She had said: “On the backstop, I know there are members of this house who remain concerned. I have listened to those concerns.

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“I want us to consider how we could go further and I will be continuing to meet colleagues to find an acceptable solution.”

The officials were clear that any solution would not involve reopening negotiations on the withdrawal agreement with the EU, meaning the solution could only involve domestic action.

A decision to try to give parliament a full veto over entering the backstop, however, could anger negotiators in Brussels who want the backstop to be a failsafe option for future UK-EU relations.

However, the withdrawal agreement does already account for parliamentary involvement in the backstop process, including over what happens at the end of the transition period in December 2020.

In the spring of that year, if a trade deal has not been agreed, MPs will have to decide whether to extend the transition for up to a further two years or enter into the backstop.

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The Independent understands that this existing mechanism could be developed domestically to give MPs greater control.

On Monday, the Commons passed a motion that means that if Ms May’s deal is defeated, MPs will have greater sway over what happens next.

The consensus is that it makes the no-deal Brexit, that some Eurosceptics want a far less likely prospect – and consequently makes Ms May’s deal the hardest kind of Brexit on offer.

Downing Street could use the opportunity, along with a new offer on the backstop, to make a renewed push for Brexiteer support. How many it will turn to her cause remains unclear.

It came as legal advice provided to the cabinet on Ms May’s Brexit deal was finally published, with the document warning it could result in the UK becoming stuck for many years in “protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations” with no lawful power to exit.

It also made clear that Brussels could apply to an arbitration panel for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU customs area while the rest of the UK left.

The six-page document by attorney general Geoffrey Cox was released to MPs a day after the House of Commons found the government in contempt of parliament for trying to keep it secret.

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