Theresa May heads to Brussels in deep trouble, but will Jean-Claude Juncker bail her out?
All that Juncker can offer is a fudge in the wording of the non-binding part of the Brexit deal, the political declaration on the future trade relationship between the EU and the UK
The prime minister flies to Brussels this afternoon with her Brexit deal, which seemed to have been done and dusted last week, in deep trouble. Last Wednesday, the cabinet signed off the hard part, the draft withdrawal agreement, and Theresa May carried on, swatting aside the loss of two cabinet ministers and a failed attempt by Conservative MPs to launch a vote of no confidence in her leadership.
Now the deal seems back in the mincer, as Julian Smith, the chief whip, tells the prime minister he cannot get it through the House of Commons without “something sufficiently different from what people currently think they are voting for”, according to Daily Mail political editor Jason Groves.
So May could ask Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission president, for a form of words that could help her sell the deal back home. But it is hard to see what he could offer that other EU leaders would accept.
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The biggest problem for hard-Brexit opponents of the deal has long been the guarantee of an open border in Ireland, known as the backstop. It’s intended to be temporary, but can only be ended by agreement with the EU. Several cabinet ministers, and even some respected think tanks, seem to think this question can be reopened – despite the cabinet having agreed to it last week.
This seems unlikely. All that Juncker can offer is a fudge in the wording of the non-binding part of the Brexit deal, the political declaration on the future trade relationship between the EU and the UK. That document has not been finalised yet: the purpose of May’s trip to Brussels is to do so.
Meanwhile, as is traditional in the run-up to crucial EU summits, other member states have raised last-minute objections. The new Spanish prime minister is not happy about Gibraltar and France wants our fish.
It is quite possible that a deal won’t be done in Brussels when the EU leaders meet on Sunday, and that the Brexit train will trundle closer to the buffers at the next summit on 13 and 14 December.
All this is happening at the same time as the prime minister’s operation in Westminster is wheeling around to face the opposite front in its battle to get the deal through parliament.
In her interviews over the weekend, Theresa May shifted from threatening opponents of her deal with the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal – which would cause immediate economic dislocation in March. Instead she warned hard-Brexit opponents in her own party, who would welcome a no-deal Brexit, of the prospect of no Brexit at all.
Amber Rudd, the prime minister’s cheerleader, restored to cabinet, confirmed this rush from the eastern to the western front on the Today programme this morning: “The House of Commons will stop no deal. There isn’t a majority for that to take place.”
That sounds as if the government has accepted the Labour line, crafted by Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, that MPs will do whatever it takes to avoid “crashing out without a deal”.
And that means the prime minister threatening her Brexit rebels – and the band of Labour MPs who say that the result of the referendum has to be respected – with the alternative to her deal being that Britain stays in the EU.
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