Theresa May drafts in Brexiteer critics in last-ditch bid to thrash out backstop compromise

Posted On: 
4th February 2019

Theresa May will today haul in warring Conservatives for talks as she races to find a workable alternative to the controversial Brexit backstop.

The Prime Minister has vowed to press the European Union for changes to the Northern Ireland border plan.
Credit: 
PA

A new 'Alternative Arrangements Working Group' is being set up by Number 10 after former Remain and Leave-supporting Tory MPs threw their weight behind the so-called 'Malthouse Compromise' plan to try and break the Commons Brexit deadlock over her EU deal.

But the peace meeting came as top Eurosceptics warned Mrs May they will pull their support if she fails to push for legally-binding changes to the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

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The new group - which will meet for the first time on Monday - includes ardent Brexiteer critics of Mrs May's deal including Steve Baker, Marcus Fysh and Owen Paterson.

Former Remain supporting MPs including Nicky Morgan and Damian Green - a key ally of the Prime Minister - will also attend the talks, which will be chaired by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and include key officials from HM Revenue and Customs, the Cabinet Office and Number 10.

But Mr Baker - who quit as a minister last year with a blast at Mrs May's deal - has already warned the Prime Minister she is in line for "a further substantial defeat" in the Commons if she fails to make good on a promise to reopen the withdrawal deal struck with the EU.

Amid signs the Prime Minister could seek a legal annexe, or codicil, to the text instead of reopening the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement, Mr Baker tweeted: "Leave-backing MPs voted to support alternative arrangements in NI [Northern Ireland] but with grave misgivings about the whole agreement

"Now the PM co-opts us into accepting everything but the backstop and, on the backstop, accepting a codicil." 

The Telegraph reports that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has told MPs that the Government could instead press for a "joint interpretive instrument" from the EU which makes clear that the Northern Ireland backstop will not be permanent.

Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg warned such a move would be "pointless and would impress few people".

'PERMANENT IMPASSE'

Critics of the backstop - which the EU has repeatedly argued is the only way to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland - fear it could leave the UK trapped in a customs union with Brussels with no way to leave.

Instead, MPs pushing for the 'Malthouse Compromise want to avoid it ever coming into effect by extending the UK's Brexit transition period while Mrs May pushes the European Union for an alternative.

It also includes a 'plan B' to switch to a "managed" no-deal Brexit with Britain trading on World Trade Organisation terms if talks break down.

Mr Malthouse on Sunday night urged his Tory colleagues to get behind the "reasonable and civilised" proposal.

"We can’t carry on in a kind of permanent impasse with people shouting the odds about what they don’t like without volunteering what they do like," he told the BBC's Westminster Hour.

But critics of Brexit have already dismissed today's meeting on the alternative plan as a "preposterous waste of time".

Speaking on behalf of the Best for Britain campaign, former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: "It shows what a situation that the Conservative Party have got themselves into.

"All the MPs involved know this plan is dead on arrival with EU leaders but yet are wasting valuable time and effort on this hare-brained scheme."

He added: "The government is in dire straights if it is creating a committee like this with with only weeks till Brexit.

"This is like the committee of a cryogenics centre discussing what the customers will have for lunch the day after they come back to life.  

"Interesting chat but none of what they discuss is ever going to happen is it?"