PM’s last roll of the dice may not be enough to win Brexit vote
It felt like a last roll of the dice for an exhausted-looking Theresa May last night, having made a late dash to Strasbourg to save her deal – and her premiership.
On Monday morning, without a breakthrough in sight, the withdrawal agreement was heading for another crushing defeat. Now, the game is back on.
:: MPs urged to back Theresa May’s 11th hour backstop assurances – live updates
The prime minister, at close to 11pm, announced she had secured “legally binding” changes to the Brexit deal to ensure the Irish backstop cannot be permanent.
In reality, what she unveiled falls far short of what Brexiteers and the DUP have demanded, and questions about how it would work, abound.
The crucial calculation today though is a political one – are her critics looking for a ladder to climb down?
Let’s start with what this is not: the prime minister has not secured a time limit, or end date to the backstop.
The EU said all along that a time limit would invalidate the backstop as an insurance policy, and they are not giving in.
The backstop has not been junked, as the DUP were asking for. It is still a crucial part of the agreement and there is no unilateral lever the UK can pull to bring it to an end.
So what has been achieved that the prime minister can sell to MPs?
A way out of sorts – a legal assurance that the UK can trigger an arbitration process at the United Nations, if it was felt the EU was trying to make the backstop arrangements indefinite.
The motion that MPs will vote on at 7pm tonight states that this “reduces the risk the UK could be deliberately held in the Northern Ireland backstop indefinitely”.
The joint “instrument” agreed last night also commits both parties to “work speedily” on alternative arrangements to be in place by the end of 2020 so the backstop does not need to be triggered.
This work on alternative arrangements is of great significance to Brexiteers, and they will be pleased to see it mentioned prominently.
My sense talking to MPs over the past few weeks since the deal was resoundingly defeated at the end of January, is that some are now looking for reasons to support it but there may not be anywhere near enough for a win.
Labour opposition is priced in, and Jeremy Corbyn duly responded last night to say what had emerged “does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised parliament”.
The reaction from the hardline Brexiteers of the European Research Group last night was muted, which for the Tory whips will have been a relief.
A key question is whether the 80-strong group, which have so far acted as a powerful bloc, will continue to move together or whether divisions will start to appear.
Jacob Rees-Mogg told Sky News the legal assurances seemed to be “a step in the right direction” but he would wait for the DUP’s view.
But his colleague Steve Baker said “it doesn’t sound like a great deal has been achieved”.
Two crucial things could swing votes: the opinion of the Democratic Unionists will be crucial to unlocking Brexiteer support.
Nigel Dodds, the party’s Westminster leader, is one of eight Brexiteer lawyers-turned-MPs who have formed their own “star chamber” to read through the documents line by line this morning.
Second is the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s legal opinion. Back in December he told MPs the UK was “indefinitely committed” to the backstop if it came into force.
He will need to reissue that advice later this morning and rule on whether, in the light of what was achieved last night, he considers it to be temporary. He has made clear his reputation as a lawyer hinges on getting it right.
Last night, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said this was the UK Parliament’s second chance. He said: “There will be no third chance. It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all.”
Turning a 230-vote defeat into a victory is a huge ask.
If the prime minister can whittle down the numbers, here in Westminster, there is already chatter about a third and final meaningful vote.
:: Brexit Crisis Live: Watch Sky News’ special programme from 6pm as MPs vote on May’s amended dea
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