THIS country is on the verge of a political crisis the likes of which we have not seen for generations.
The Government’s efforts to get changes to the backstop have run into a brick wall in Brussels. The EU thinks, with justification, that MPs won’t allow No Deal so it feels under no pressure to make significant concessions.
Brighty’s cartoon of Prime Minister Theresa May running out of battery life trying to sort out Brexit
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is telling the UK that if it doesn’t like the backstop, it can have a Northern Ireland-only version of it — which the UK has already rejected. One minister fully briefed on the negotiations tells me: “We’re at ‘what the hell do we do?’ time.”
But without a change to the backstop, Theresa May’s deal is going down to another heavy defeat on Tuesday.
‘EU TO DICTATE TERMS’
That won’t be the end of the matter, though. For the very next day Parliament will vote against leaving on March 29 with No Deal. Parliament will then almost certainly vote to request an extension to Article 50, the two-year process for leaving the EU.
At this moment, the UK would be in the EU’s hands. As one weary No10 source admits: “They’d be in a position of being able to dictate terms.”
It would be up to the EU to decide whether to grant an extension, how long it would be for and what conditions would be attached to it. How humiliating: This country’s future would be being determined in Brussels, not Westminster.
The EU would almost certainly grant an extension. But what terms it would come with remains to be seen.
What should worry those MPs who are voting against Mrs May’s deal because it is not a clean enough Brexit, is what Parliament would do with this extension. I understand that unless the Government indicates that it will allow the Commons to vote on various Brexit options, an amendment will be tacked on to the extension vote to ensure that “indicative votes” are held.
These votes would be on March 25 and the Commons would move to bind the Government to negotiate what it wants it to.
Ministers would have to report back regularly to the Commons on the progress they are making. Mrs May might be in office, but she would not be in power. It is inevitable that the Brexit the Commons would mandate would be softer than Mrs May’s deal.
So why, then, are so many Brexiteers not voting for her deal? Well, the problem is that many of them regard it as so flawed that they have no desire to rescue it. They would, in the words of one Cabinet minister: “Rather their hands be clean of all this.”
But this isn’t PRACTICAL POLITICS. If Brexiteers won’t back Mrs May’s deal, then Brexit is ONLY GOING TO GET SOFTER.
Is there any hope of avoiding this crisis? Today, it looks unlikely. But the DUP does want a deal.
While they won’t accept the backstop as it currently is and were, in the words of one source, “not entirely happy” with the proposal Geoffrey Cox took to Brussels, they are eager for an agreement.
ROADS LEAD TO CRISIS
If progress on the backstop was combined with a commitment from Mrs May that she would step down before phase two of the negotiations, then the deal might pass.
I understand that a leading Brexiteer backbencher conveyed this message to influential figures in the Government this week. One normally loyal minister tells me: “If there’s nothing else, that is the thing that has to work.”
One outcome next week would avoid a crisis: Some progress on the backstop, Mrs May’s deal passing and a new PM coming in to do the next phase of the negotiations. All other roads lead to crisis.
But right now, that is where we are headed.
Corbyn’s going soft
LABOUR will, officially, back a second referendum next week.
But with as many as 70 Labour MPs opposed to the idea, it isn’t going to pass the Commons.
Getty – Contributor Jeremy Corbyn is now for a second referendum, but once he has gone through the motions, he will pivot to other options
Jeremy Corbyn has never been enthusiastic about a second referendum – he only backed one to prevent more defections to The Independent Group of MPs.
Once he has gone through the motions of supporting one, he will feel free to pivot to other options.
This was demonstrated by the fact he had a meeting with the Norway Plus group of MPs this week, who want the UK to stay in the EU single market.
A soft Brexit has an obvious appeal for Corbyn. It would offer a solution to the issue while splitting the Tory Party.
Barwell bid to unblock backstop
IT is now looking increasingly likely that the UK won’t be able to get anything on the backstop.
“The EU are just not budging,” one of those intimately involved in the negotiations tells me.
Getty Images – Getty The PM’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, suggested bringing to the Commons the proposal that the UK has taken to Brussels
Bringing back a pretty much unchanged deal for a vote on Tuesday would lead to a heavy defeat for the Government, and probably by a three-figure margin.
But there is another option being discussed in government. Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, told ministers this week that one option was to bring to the Commons the proposal that the UK has taken to Brussels. The idea would then be to try to win a vote on that, to prove to the EU that such a change would get the deal through.
Right now, one Downing Street source says, there is a “chicken and egg problem” as the EU doesn’t think that what the UK is proposing would get the deal through the Commons, and so doesn’t see the point in engaging with it.
Some in government think that doing this would offer a way out of the votes on No Deal and an extension that threaten to create the bitterest Tory split yet over Europe.
This strategy is not without risks. It isn’t certain that the Government would win this vote. There is also a danger that holding a vote on a proposal that has been rejected by the EU would end up looking absurd.
But walking into a vote knowing that you are going to lose heavily is rarely a sensible governing strategy.Eruption in ranks on cards
ON Wednesday, Alan Duncan urged the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, to have the Government whip against No Deal if Mrs May’s deal is defeated next week.
Duncan warned of an eruption from the “moderate” wing of the party if this didn’t happen. Barwell pointed out that Leave ministers have accepted a lot of compromises over the past few years.
Getty Images – Getty Alan Duncan warned of an eruption from Tory ‘moderates’ if the Government didn’t whip against No Deal next week
The exchange demonstrated how difficult the next week will be for the Tories. The votes that would follow Mrs May’s deal failing would make every previous Tory argument over Europe look like small beer.
I understand the Government is looking to contain the row through a motion that would say the UK would not leave on March 29 without a deal, but would try to make clear that it was still an option after that.
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Knife crime bind
AS Mrs May was saying there was “no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers”, a leaflet from the Tories’ mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey was dropping on London doormats declaring that if the party took City Hall they would hire 1,000 more police “Helping to bring an end to rising crime”.
This pledge shows the position the Government has got itself into is politically preposterous.
What is needed is more police to deal with the current crisis, then action to stop children from being drawn into these gangs.
Theresa May warns Remainers will trap Britain in EU if her Brexit deal fails