British government to step up action on the backstop

Theresa May’s ministers are set for another round of Brexit talks after latest Commons defeat

Theresa May's government will next week seek to step up negotiations with the European Union over the Northern Ireland backstop, after MPs rejected the prime minister's approach to Brexit.

The backstop, a provision in the EU-UK Brexit deal aimed at avoiding a hard Border in Ireland after the UK leaves the bloc, has emerged as a key obstacle to UK MPs backing the withdrawal agreement.

British Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay will meet EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday ahead of Mrs May's expected trip to Brussels next week for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Attorney general Geoffrey Cox will on Tuesday set out the legally binding changes to the backstop his government believes are needed to secure a House of Commons majority for the Brexit deal. Culture secretary Jeremy Wright, Mr Cox's predecessor as attorney general, said on Sunday that it might not be necessary to reopen the text of the withdrawal agreement to achieve a breakthrough.


“I think what’s obvious is that parliament, and I think probably people well beyond parliament, are concerned about the potential indefinite nature of the backstop – that’s what we’ve got to do something about. If this is the only way of doing it then that’s the way we will pursue. If there are other ways of doing it that are just as effective that perhaps we haven’t yet explored then we will do that too,” he told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.

“I don’t think it’s the mechanism that matters, it’s the objective: if you can get to a place where the potential longevity of the backstop, the potential that the backstop lasts forever, can be adequately dealt with, that’s what we’re all seeking to do. That’s what parliament has been very clear that it wants; it will back this deal if we can do something about the backstop.”

Mrs May has insisted until now that she needs changes to the text of the legally binding withdrawal agreement, something the EU has ruled out, to break the current impasse. The prime minister appealed at the weekend for unity among her Conservative party after 57 hardline Brexiteers abstained last Thursday on a motion endorsing her approach to Brexit.

Alternative measures

Some Conservative Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) have ruled out voting for the Brexit deal unless the backstop is removed from the withdrawal agreement and replaced with alternative measures to ensure that the Border remains open. Others have made clear that a codicil or changes to the political declaration attached to the withdrawal agreement will not be enough to secure their support.

Defence minister Tobias Ellwood said on Sunday that he and a number of other ministers would take whatever action was necessary to avoid leaving the EU without a deal, implying that they would resign if they were not allowed to vote for a motion to take no-deal off the table..

“In the event that the ERG cannot be relied upon with their votes, then we do need to pursue the possibility of having that free vote to take no-deal off the table,” he told the BBC.

“There are many ministers, me being one of them, that need to see no-deal removed from the table in due course, and that date is very much approaching, very soon indeed.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times