Theresa May’s hopes of securing compromise from the EU on the backstop element of her withdrawal plan have been dealt a blow after Ireland firmly said it must stay.
The Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, said the backstop “as part of the withdrawal agreement is part of a balanced package that isn’t going to change”.
Speaking on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show, Coveney said: “The backstop is already a compromise. It is a series of compromises. It was designed around British red lines.”
Ireland has repeatedly stressed its commitment to retaining the backstop, the proposal to keep the entire UK in a customs union with the EU at the end of the transition period to prevent the return of a hard border, if new trade arrangements or technology fail to avoid one. But some ministers claim to have picked up signs in Brussels that other members of the EU may be inclined to compromise on this issue.
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Coveney said that without a backstop in the withdrawal agreement, Ireland would have to rely on just an “aspirational hope” that a hard border could be avoided.
This month MPs rejected the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May by a crushing 230 majority. For Tories who voted against the deal and for the Democratic Unionist party, whose support May needs for a majority, the backstop was the single most objectionable aspect of the plan.
Speaking on the same programme, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, rejected a suggestion that Coveney’s comments meant May’s deal was “dead in the water”. He said Coveney was articulating “a negotiating position” and that Ireland did not want a no-deal Brexit.
“The whole purpose of the backstop is to avoid a hard border, which risks being a consequence of a no-deal Brexit,” he said.
On Tuesday May faces a further threat to her authority when the Commons is expected to vote on a move that would potentially enable parliament to order her to demand an extension of article 50 if she cannot get a deal agreed by 26 February.
The plan is to set out an amendment tabled by the Labour MP Yvette Cooper, and an accompanying bill, and it is attracting enough Conservative support to mean it has a good chance of passing if Labour officially backs it, as it has indicated it will.
Speaking to Marr, Hancock said the Cooper amendment was flawed because delaying Brexit would not necessarily prevent no deal. He said: “You can’t just vote for delay – that doesn’t solve anything. You have got to vote positively for a deal, so let’s keep having those conversations about what the Commons can coalesce around.”
Other amendments that may be put to a vote on Tuesday, from Brexiters, address the backstop issue. One amendment would lead to it expiring at the end of 2021, and another would require it to be taken out of the withdrawal agreement altogether, and replaced with other arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
These are potentially useful to May because, if passed by a clear majority, they would enable her to tell the EU what changes to the withdrawal agreement could lead to it being passed by parliament. But Coveney’s comments seemed intended to close down the prospect of the backstop being renegotiated.
In a separate interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, the education secretary, Damian Hinds, said he did not “envisage a scenario in which no deal becomes government policy”.
But in an article (paywall) for the Sunday Times, Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons and one of the cabinet’s leading Brexiters, dismissed the Cooper plan as “a thinly veiled attempt to stop Brexit” and said it “conveniently overlooks the simple fact that no deal is the legal default”.
Last week, during business questions in the Commons, Leadsom brushed aside a suggestion that the February recess – a 10-day parliamentary break – may have to be abandoned to create time for Brexit legislation to be passed before 29 March, when the UK is scheduled to leave.
This weekend No 10 confirmed this was an option. Responding to reports that MPs could be asked to sit for 12-hour days, instead of the normal eight-hour days, and to sit on Fridays and through the whole of February, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “We remain committed to ensuring all necessary legislation is in place for exit day on 29 March, and it important to stress we are confident of meeting that commitment.
“We are aware this is a challenging timetable, so as a precautionary measure we are in preliminary discussions about extending sitting times – but only if necessary.
“All MPs will have a chance to debate and vote before any extension to hours is taken and we recognise the need to balance this with the constituency role of all MPs and the importance of family life.”
This content was originally published here.