Theresa May promised the cabinet she would seek a deal that allowed the UK the “unilateral ability to withdraw” from any backstop arrangement, according to two senior ministers who told BuzzFeed News they feared the prime minister was about to row back on this commitment to secure a Brexit deal with the EU.
Ahead of Tuesday’s crunch cabinet meeting, two cabinet ministers told BuzzFeed News they were concerned May was about to break three key pledges on the backstop.
At a cabinet meeting after last month’s European council, the ministers believed they had secured commitments from May that the UK would be able to trigger a break clause to quit the backstop, that the EU’s proposal for a backstop treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK would be torn up, and that the UK would not remain indefinitely in a customs union.
Yet the two ministers told BuzzFeed News they are now concerned the UK is about to concede that it will not be able to unilaterally quit the backstop, that the Northern Ireland-only backstop remains in what they are calling a “Russian doll backstop”, and that it is now likely the UK will not leave a customs union with the EU after Brexit.
They were reacting to Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, who tweeted that “a time-limited backstop or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by IRE or EU”. Coveney was backed up by Brussels negotiator Sabine Weyand, who retweeted him with the words “Still necessary to repeat this, it seems.”
The ministers said they believed they had a commitment from May that the UK would seek the “unilateral ability to withdraw” from any backstop arrangement. They interpreted this to mean the UK would secure a unilateral break clause for the backstop. May told them she would guarantee the UK could not be kept inside “against our will”.
They now fear May will concede that such a decision could not be unilateral, and instead triggered only by legally determined review clauses, which would provide a set of objective criteria that would allow the UK to leave.
On Monday, the Irish government said May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had discussed a “review mechanism” for the backstop, with Ireland insisting “the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop”. A statement released by Downing Street made no mention of a “review mechanism”, stoking speculation that this will be the likely outcome, rather than a unilateral trigger.
Cabinet ministers are under pressure from Brexiteers to oppose a climbdown. Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid have called for the backstop to be time-limited, while Brexit secretary Dominic Raab privately demanded the right to pull the UK out of the backstop after three months and publicly said the arrangement must be “finite”, “short”, and “time-limited”.
Colleagues suggested Raab could concede on the backstop but then try to convince Brexiteers he had succeeded in keeping a Canada-style free trade agreement on the table. A source familiar with a draft version of the Future Economic Partnership told BuzzFeed News it leaves open the possibility of a Canada-type arrangement.
Both ministers who spoke to BuzzFeed News also said they were concerned the Northern Ireland-only backstop would remain part of a deal with the EU, despite believing they had secured a commitment from the PM that she would not sign up to it.
They said the PM promised them that the proposal for a temporary UK-wide customs arrangement meant the Northern Ireland-only backstop “would no longer be needed”.
The ministers took this to mean the Northern Ireland-only backstop would be removed from the deal, but they now believe the UK will concede on this. They suspect that language — “no longer be needed” — leaves May open to agreeing a deal based on a UK-wide customs union, with the Northern Ireland backstop then included as a fallback.
This has been dubbed the “Russian doll backstop” in cabinet — a backstop that has the outward appearance of being UK-wide, but then contains the Northern Ireland-only backstop within.
And the ministers also said they believe Number 10’s thinking is that it is inevitable the UK-wide backstop will come into effect because the future relationship will not be ready by the end of the transition.
This is contrary to Downing Street’s public insistence that it intends for the backstop to never have to be used, and that the UK will not end up in an indefinite customs union with the EU after Brexit.
The new row over the backstop came as Labour explored ways of forcing the government to publish legal advice being drawn up by attorney general Geoffrey Cox. Former Brexit secretary David Davis said on Sunday that the government must release the advice or face a repeat of Tony Blair’s refusal to publish legal advice over the Iraq War.
Whitehall sources said they believed Commons speaker John Bercow could grant Labour time to use a parliamentary manoeuvre called a humble address to compel the government to publish the advice. Labour has an opposition day on Nov. 14 and has not yet confirmed its topics.
A senior Labour source told BuzzFeed News: “Labour has said throughout that parliament should be kept involved in this crucial stage. It is vital that parliament has all the information it needs to make an informed decision.”
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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