Did Theresa May kill the Malthouse compromise?

Posted On: 
6th February 2019

The Prime Minister appeared to rule out scrapping the controversial backstop mechanism – did that render the Malthouse compromise dead in the water? 

Theresa May saw her Brexit deal defeated by 230 votes in January
Credit: 
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

“The thing about the PM is, as ever, she’ll often stick with the same line until something else is firmly on the table.”

MPs behind the latest addition to the Brexit lexicon – the Malthouse compromise – do not buy into claims that Theresa May has stopped their alternative proposal for leaving the EU dead in its tracks.

In supporting the Brady amendment last week, MPs backed finding “alternative arrangements” to the controversial backstop, the policy that seeks to prevent a hard border in Ireland should the UK and the EU not agree on a future relationship. But, speaking to business leaders in Belfast yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister said Parliament wants “changes made” to the backstop, in comments that appeared to rule out getting rid of the controversial mechanism altogether.

Why would this be at odds with the Malthouse compromise? The proposals, named after the Housing Minister who helped broker the truce between leading Remain and Leave Tory MPs, would see the backstop replaced with a free trade agreement with the EU, which would rely on technological solutions to carry out customs checks away from the Irish border. The compromise, split into Part A and Part B, would also see the implementation period extended to December 2021 and the UK meet its financial obligations to the EU (more information about the proposals can be found here).

Proponents of the Malthouse compromise are an unlikely cabal of Conservative politicians with diametrically opposed views on Brexit, ranging from senior ERG members to backers of a Norway Plus EU exit. Some of its protagonists have formed a working group in Whitehall with a dozen civil servants this week exploring the viability of the proposals.

“What the working group is doing now is looking at the workability of what we have proposed,” an MP from the group said this morning.  They argued the PM has not received “full advice” on the progress made and insisted her comments in Northern Ireland do not “preclude” the Malthouse compromise. “It’s a question of what those alternative arrangements are.”

Another supporter said: “The level of engagement… indicates that the Government is taking this very seriously. The Prime Minister’s comments yesterday are open to interpretation.”

“It is clear that a lot of government time and effort and brainpower is being invested in exploring this,” one backer added.

Downing Street for their part confirmed that the Government is considering three possible options; the Malthouse compromise, putting an end date on the backstop or creating a mechanism which allows the UK to leave the arrangement at a time of its choosing.

But, as many MPs on all sides would testify, it would be by no means the first time May has paid lip service to a different proposal only to follow through on her existing strategy. In a mild warning to the PM, however, supporters of the Malthouse compromise argued she should consider the parliamentary arithmetic.

“The Malthouse compromise has been agreed across the various wings of the Conservative party. And if the Prime Minister goes to Brussels with that, she has a majority in the House of Commons for it. If she offers them a whole menu of plans, it is mere speculation as to whether there’s a majority in the House of Commons for it or not,” an MP from the group said.

One MP conceded that some Tory colleagues would be assuaged by the prospect of a codicil being attached to the Withdrawal Agreement. But they warned: “The problem with the backstop is it’s an indefinite prison from which the only escape appears to be back into the EU.” A codicil would not command the full support of the Conservative party, they added.

That said, given the backstop arrangement outlined in the Malthouse compromise forms one part of the overall proposals, could the MPs support an alternative arrangement to their own? One said to accept the backstop with a time limit or an exit mechanism is “still a very difficult thing to do”, but noted it was important not to “box ourselves in”.

That wriggle room could be important. EU officials have not only been unwilling to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, but also dismissive of the idea of technology being used to prevent a hard border in Ireland. The EU's deputy chief negotiator on Brexit, Sabine Weyand, said last month: “We looked at every border on this earth, every border EU has with a third country – there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls. The negotiators have not been able to explain them to us and that’s not their fault; it’s because they don’t exist.”

Reading between the lines, supporters of the Malthouse compromise remain of the view that their solution to prevent a hard border in Ireland is the best available. But, as the name of the group indicates, there could be room for manoeuvre.