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Brexit: Cabinet ministers push for Theresa May to support time-limited plan for Irish backstop

They argue it would give her leverage to extract concessions from the EU in critical talks over the next few weeks

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 23 January 2019 10:00 GMT
Theresa May gives speech before Brexit meaningful vote

Theresa May is under pressure from her cabinet to back a plan to secure a time limit on the Irish backstop hated by so many Tory MPs.

Three senior ministers are pushing for her to support the move to let parliament vote on introducing a sunset clause to the backstop.

They argue it would give her leverage to extract concessions from the European Union, but there is reticence to explicitly back the plan in Downing Street because it could go down badly in Brussels, as it contradicts the deal Ms May spent 19 months negotiating.

The cabinet pressure comes as a Conservative MP again tabled an amendment to achieve a time limit, setting the scene for a new clash with Commons speaker John Bercow because it must be chosen by him for debate.

Ms May led her weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday, at which ministers received an update on preparedness for Brexit as well having a wider discussion on the UK’s withdrawal process and the backstop.

The backstop comes into play if the UK fails to agree a future trading arrangement with the EU by December 2020, and could potentially lock Britain into an indefinite customs union.

Cabinet insiders confirmed reports that foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt argued that the best way to move forward is to get parliamentary backing for a time limit to the backstop, and then take that to Brussels as proof of what must happen for the deal to pass through the Commons.

The Independent understands that Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt could also back the plan, and have been pushing for it as a way to try to salvage Ms May’s withdrawal agreement.

But one source said the government’s preference would be for MPs to make the move without the executive’s backing, allowing Ms May to argue for a time limit while also being able to claim in Brussels that she had no choice but to do so because parliament had demanded one.

That could happen if Mr Bercow allows MPs to vote on an amendment tabled for a second time by Conservative MP Andrew Murrison, which if passed would make accepting the withdrawal agreement conditional on there being a time limit.

Frustrated EU spokesperson Margaritis Schinas channels Spice Girls on Brexit: ‘Tell us what you want, what you really, really want’

But the last time it was tabled the speaker refused to call it, angering ministers who backed the plan. Others inside No 10 are not confident the EU would respond well, however the amendment was passed.

Tory Brexiteers have begun to suggest they might back Ms May’s deal if she could find a way to extract a new concession on the backstop.

Jacob Rees-Mogg said at the weekend he would prefer the prime minister’s deal to remaining in the EU, and Nadine Dorries also suggested there might be circumstances in which she could support it.

Sammy Wilson of Ms May’s DUP partners in government also indicated he could live with a backstop as long as there are significant changes to it.

At cabinet, pro-EU ministers argued that pressure on Brexiteers to back Ms May’s deal should be intensified by underlining the idea that the UK could just stay in the EU if it is defeated.

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