Strasbourg drama hasn’t changed deal. MPs must vote it down

by Luke Lythgoe | 12.03.2019

Despite the spectacle of an eleventh-hour flight to Strasbourg, and a triumphant announcement of “legally binding” changes to the Northern Ireland backstop, the prime minister has little more than a figleaf to conceal just how far the government is from meeting the demands of MPs. They must vote the deal down tonight.

The latest wording comes nowhere close to what the Brexiters want: either a time limit or unilateral escape mechanism for the backstop. And it’s not even what Theresa May promised.

Back in January May told MPs she wanted “a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement”. Last night, Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed that the new arrangement only “complements” the Withdrawal Agreement without reopening it. These are still just “reassurances” and “clarifications”, though now in a legal form. And the joint statement on the future relationship is of no huge significance because that document – like the Political Declaration – is not legally binding.

Indeed, the spectacle of the government having to publish its own unilateral spin policy – with an interpretation of the deal that the EU cannot endorse – shows just how ludicrous this saga has become. And even then the government can only go as far as saying the change “reduces the risk” the UK could be held in the Northern Ireland backstop “indefinitely”.

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The Brexiters are right to be concerned about the backstop. While it is essential for guaranteeing an open border and helping safeguard peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, it would be miserable for the UK as whole if it were ever triggered – something that May’s deal makes quite likely. The backstop would put us in a bare-bones customs union with the EU, doing very little for our economy and turning us into a rule-taker in many areas.

However, the deal being voted on today is bad for more reasons than just the backstop. It’s a bad deal, full stop.

The question is whether May’s figleaf has given Brexiters enough of a ladder to climb down and back her in Parliament. That’s unclear: Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was “clearly a step in the right direction”, while Steve Baker is still warning of “entrapment” in the backstop.

The verdict of pro-Brexit attorney general Geoffrey Cox, expected today, could have some influence. But considering Brexiters have previously called the deal “rancid” and warned of “vassaldom” for the UK, it would be staggering if this were enough to win them over.

May’s last-minute dash to Strasbourg and eleventh-hour agreement could even backfire. MPs will not appreciate being bounced into accepting a half-in half-out Brexit that pleases no one. They should reject the deal, step back from the cliff edge and seek real clarity about our future.

It’s a pity so much time has been wasted and so much effort spent to achieve so little. Now is the time for MPs to step it up a gear and really try and break the deadlock in Parliament. It will soon become clear that the only way to do that is with a People’s Vote.