Former Brexit minister Steve Baker says ‘in the end, it’s not really about the backstop’
Eurosceptic Conservative MPs will still vote down the government’s Brexit deal even if Theresa May negotiates an exit clause from the Irish backstop, the former minister Steve Baker has insisted.
May’s cabinet has been locked in a bitter internal wrangle about whether, and how, the government could extricate itself from the backstop, with some ministers concerned her plans could leave the UK in a permanent limbo.
The prime minister hopes to win the backing of her ministers for a draft withdrawal agreement at a special cabinet meeting likely to take place early next week.
But Baker, a leading figure in the backbench European Research Group (ERG), said Conservative MPs would be closely scrutinising the accompanying political declaration setting out the framework for the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU27.
“In the end, it’s not really about the backstop,” he said. “The tearing frustration is that the UK has been negotiating with itself.
“Many of us have long believed that the row over the backstop is at least partly confected in order to have an orchestrated breakthrough”.
The DUP also underlined their objections to May’s approach, casting fresh doubt on her ability to get a deal through parliament. In a letter to the DUP leader Arlene Foster, which was leaked to the Times, May said that the EU is still pushing for a so-called “backstop to the backstop”, which would keep the province in regulatory alignment with the Republic of Ireland to avoid a hard border.
In the letter May said she would never allow a divide between the province and Britain “to come into force”. The Times said this had been interpreted by the DUP as a sign that the clause will be inserted into the legally binding agreement.
May relies on the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs for her Commons majority, votes that may become crucial as she attempts to get a deal through parliament. However, Foster told the Times that May’s letter “raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious union and for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole of the UK”.
Baker said that he and his pro-leave colleagues would focus their attention on the declaration. “Conservative MPs expect to get some commitment for the money. The overwhelming attitude of Conservative MPs is that paying £39bn for nothing is totally unacceptable,” he said.
The government hopes it can win over Tory sceptics and some Labour MPs with firm reassurances that the Irish backstop will not be indefinite.
But Baker said few would be convinced. If the deal is voted down, he predicted there would be a moment of “profound political crisis”, during which Eurosceptic Tory MPs would be able to shift the government’s negotiating stance towards a looser future relationship with the EU.
Meanwhile, anti-Brexit MPs believe if the deal is voted down, the crucial days afterwards could be when parliament seizes control of the process and insists on a second referendum or at least a closer future relationship with the EU.
The UK believes it made a breakthrough in persuading the EU’s Brexit negotiators to consider including a UK-wide backstop – in effect a temporary customs union – in the withdrawal agreement, avoiding the threat of a customs border in the Irish Sea.
However, this appears to have failed to convince the DUP and, as a quid pro quo, the EU is insisting on stringent “level playing field” conditions that would tie the UK to EU regulations in a series of key areas, including state aid and workers’ rights.
The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, underlined that view on Thursday. “We want the future relationship between the EU and UK to be as close as possible, but it must provide a level playing field and the integrity of our single market must be upheld,” the Irish prime minister said.
“The ball is very much in London’s court. Internal British politics is really a matter for them. I just hope Prime Minister May is in a position to get any potential agreement through her cabinet and through her parliament.”
The backstop was included in the December agreement with the EU27 as an attempt to avoid a hard border in Ireland, and has since gone on to shape the negotiations.
Baker claimed signing up to it – a decision that took place when he was a minister in the Department for Exiting the EU – had been used by Downing Street as a ploy to secure a softer Brexit.
“If you look at the evolution of the discussion on the Irish backstop, it became a very good excuse to say we have to have a high alignment Brexit,” he said – meaning a relationship in which the UK obeys EU rules.
Cabinet ministers are expected to be asked to sign up to some form of review mechanism, which would see the UK and the EU27 consider jointly whether conditions had been met for the Irish backstop to come to an end.
However, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, cast doubt on whether that would be acceptable on Thursday. Asked by the BBC about how the UK could extricate itself from the backstop, he said: “That has to be a mechanism where ultimately that decision has to lie with the sovereign British government.”
Fox was entering the Cabinet Office, where senior ministers have been invited to read the draft withdrawal agreement. One source has suggested it runs to 300 pages.
A Whitehall source suggested the agreement could be published as soon as next Wednesday, and the UK hopes EU ministers will respond by giving the go-ahead for an EU Brexit summit at the end of this month.
In Brussels, a senior EU diplomat said he was “fairly certain” that an agreement between the negotiators was within reach but that member states would then need a few days to examine any deal before a November Brexit summit, possibly to take place sometime between 22 and 25 November, could be convened.
Ambassadors for the 27 other EU member states are meeting on Friday to be briefed by Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief negotiator, after a Wednesday update was cancelled to allow the talks more time.
“In next few days, we will have to see,” the diplomat said. He ruled out a weekend of drama given the armistice commemorations around EU capitals.
Final lap of the Brexit marathon: a possible timetable
Downing Street refuses to be drawn on any specific timetable, but both sides appear poised for a breakthrough:
Theresa May is likely to convene a special cabinet meeting on Monday. Ministers would be asked to sign up to her negotiating position, including on the Irish backstop, backed by legal advice from the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox.
Dominic Raab would then travel to Brussels to meet Barnier, whom the government hopes would conclude that enough progress had been made to convene a special Brexit summit at the end of this month.
The government would publish the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline of the political declaration on a future trading relationship, perhaps as soon as next Wednesday, for MPs to scrutinise.
May would then pour all the government’s energy into selling the deal to sceptical MPs on all sides of the Commons, in the run-up to the meaningful vote, which would probably take place in early December.
If cabinet cannot agree, or Barnier decides insufficient progress has been made, there will not be a November summit, a final decision will be delayed until December, and MPs could find themselves voting on the deal just days before Christmas.