Theresa May’s temporary triumph

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IT HAS BEEN a good week for Theresa May. In a series of votes on January 29th she secured backing from almost all Tory MPs and from her Northern Irish Democratic Unionist allies for a motion asking her to go to Brussels to seek changes to her Brexit deal. She also defeated two amendments that could have seen MPs take charge of the Brexit process. She comprehensively out-debated the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but still got him to drop his refusal to talk to her about how to get a new Brexit deal past MPs who resoundingly rejected the first version two weeks ago.

Two developments underlay her success. The first was an amendment by Sir Graham Brady, a leading Tory backbencher, that backed her Brexit deal so long as the much-disliked Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy to avert a hard border in Ireland by keeping the United Kingdom in a customs union with the European Union, is replaced by what it coyly called “alternative arrangements”. The second was a plan hatched by Tories from both wings of the party, dubbed the Malthouse compromise after a junior housing minister, for a different backstop and for a longer transition period even if no withdrawal agreement is ratified. Although the Malthouse compromise seems unrealistic and Sir Graham’s plan lacks specifics, the combination was enough for the Brady amendment to win by 317 votes to 301.

A third crucial element was Mrs May’s promise to allow MPs another lot of votes on Brexit on February 14th. This was enough to head off for now amendments by Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP, and Dominic Grieve, a Tory, to rip up normal parliamentary procedure and pass their own bills designed to stop a no-deal Brexit and explore other options instead. Fourteen Labour MPs defied their party whip to sink the Cooper amendment; they may yet come round to backing a revised deal. For Mrs May, the only fly in the ointment was the passage of another amendment from Dame Caroline Spelman, a Tory, to reject a no-deal Brexit. But this has no legal force.

Yet Mrs May’s triumph will prove short-lived. Even as the Brady amendment was being voted through, the EU was insisting that the Brexit withdrawal agreement, a treaty that includes the Irish backstop, could not be reopened. EU leaders are exasperated that Mrs May now supports a plan that jettisons a central part of the deal which she had previously insisted was the only one available.

Brussels is all the more unwilling to reopen negotiations because Mrs May still refuses to change any of her red lines. As Kenneth Clarke, a veteran Tory, put it in the debate, the logical outcome now would be a permanent customs union with regulatory alignment, but Mrs May still rules this out. Moreover, if the withdrawal agreement were reopened, the EU thinks other issues such as fisheries, the budget or Gibraltar would be raised by leaders who believe they have already given Britain too many concessions. And the European Parliament, whose assent is needed for any deal, might well reject a deal that radically alters the current one.

Above all, the EU is not prepared to throw Ireland, which insists on keeping the backstop in order to avoid a hard border in all circumstances, under the bus. The interests of a member always come above those of a leaver. The backstop is seen as an inevitable outcome of Britain’s red lines of leaving the customs union and single market. Stopping a hard border is also vital protection for the Good Friday Agreement that ended the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Claims that some untried new technology can avoid all checks and controls on the Irish border are still seen in Brussels as magical thinking. Indeed, Brexiteers’ insistence on removing the backstop is treated as evidence of doubts that their own magic would work. And the repeated lurches in Britain’s approaches to Brexit seem only to strengthen the case for keeping the backstop as an insurance policy.

None of this means that the EU will do nothing to help Mrs May. It has already offered clarifications to make clear that it does not want the backstop to be used and that, if it were, it would only be temporary. These could be given greater legal force, perhaps through an interpretative agreement or codicil, so long as this does not contradict the withdrawal agreement itself. And Brussels is already hinting that, if more time is needed beyond March 29th, the date set for Brexit under Article 50, it is ready to entertain the notion.

With less than two months left, it is indeed increasingly clear that some extension of Article 50 will be necessary. Parliament must pass a massive withdrawal act as well as other big pieces of legislation and hundreds of statutory instruments before Brexit can happen. Only limited progress has been made in rolling over existing EU free-trade agreements that Britain will lose on its departure. When Mrs May was repeatedly asked in the Commons by Ms Cooper whether she would seek the EU’s agreement to extend Article 50, she refused to answer. But she also ostentatiously did not rule out the idea altogether.

And this plays into the other big concern of the week, which is the growing risk of a Brexit on March 29th with no deal at all. The response of British business to the Commons votes was glum. The failure of Ms Cooper’s amendment means that no deal is still on the table as the default option, even if a majority of MPs have voted not to support it. Sabine Weyand, deputy to Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, declared this week that the risk of no deal was going up.

The markets seem more sanguine. The pound has actually risen in value since Mrs May’s deal was rejected by MPs. But many analysts think traders are underestimating the chances of a no-deal Brexit. Paul Hardy, a Brexit adviser at DLA Piper, a law firm, reckons the EU is better prepared for no deal than Britain. He adds, however, that a big concern in Brussels will be to avoid the blame should a no-deal Brexit actually transpire.

It is this potential game of blame-shifting that makes the chance of no deal so worrying. Several Tory MPs and even some cabinet ministers have said they would fight any deliberate decision to go for a no-deal Brexit, if need be by resigning the party whip. EU leaders, too, will do whatever they can to avoid such an outcome, which would seriously damage not just Britain but the entire EU, and most notably Ireland. But if the clock runs down and both sides start blaming each other for being too intransigent, no deal could still happen by accident. To prevent it may take defter diplomacy and greater flexibility than either Mrs May or the EU have shown during the past two years.

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