Boost for Theresa May as backstop critic Lord Trimble says she has won 'substantive' changes

Posted On: 
18th March 2019

Theresa May's beleaguered Brexit deal has received a rare boost as an arch-critic of the Northern Ireland backstop said she had secured "substantive changes" to the plan.

David Trimble, Tony Blair and John Hume at the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Credit: 
PA

Northern Ireland's former first minister Lord Trimble last month launched legal proceedings against the Government over the plan to avoid a return to a hard Irish border in the event Brexit talks break down.

But the Conservative peer - who used to lead the Ulster Unionist Party and was a key architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - said Mrs May had now "succeeded in securing substantive changes that will affect and limit the impact of the Irish backstop" if it is ever triggered.

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In a joint Policy Exchange paper with Lord Bew, who also worked on the historic peace deal, Lord Trimble said Mrs May had now "improved" her chances of getting her Brexit deal through the Commons.

And he said the Prime Minister had "opened up the possibility of a deal with the DUP", whose support for the agreement will be crucial in swinging hardline Conservative Brexiteers and many Labour MPs behind the agreement in a third Commons vote.

'SERIOUS'

The pair list three "notable" sets of changes to the backstop, saying the Government had now begun to "seriously" consider technological fixes to the border question long demanded by Eurosceptics.

"The UK is at last committing serious material and political resources to this project," they said.

Meanwhile, they said ministers had given more "full-blooded" assurances that there would continue to be "unfettered trade between the UK and Northern Ireland" after Brexit - with the Northern Ireland Assembly placed "at the centre of future developments on this".

And the peers said the UK had "stepped away" from a position in which it "passively accepted" the European Union and the Irish Government's view of the Good Friday Agreement - making support from the DUP more likely.

"It has returned to the rather more obvious and correct view that the Agreement – the clue is in the word ‘agreement’ – is the possession of both communities in Northern Ireland: Unionist as well as Nationalist," they said.

"This has opened up the possibility of a deal with the DUP."

The boost for the Prime Minister comes after MPs overwhelmingly rejected her Brexit deal for a second time last week.

The move followed bombshell legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who said the legal risk of Britain being held in the backstop indefinitely "remains unchanged" despite a "substantive and binding reinforcement" of the UK's legal rights.

Former Cabinet minister Boris Johnson, a longstanding critic of Mrs May's deal, said on Monday that the Prime Minister should postpone a third vote on her pact unless she had agreed "real" change to the border plan.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who last week switched position to vote for it, said he too could pull his newfound support without further backstop assurances.

"If they have not answered the Northern Ireland question properly I might not vote for it this time," he told The Times.

But Lord Trimble and Lord Bew said a "widespread war weariness on all sides" meant MPs could now shift to back the battered agreement.

"The chances of the Prime Minister getting the deal through Parliament have improved," they predicted.