The chief whip has told Conservative MPs that the government could reopen the Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU if parliament sends a message to Brussels that it will vote for a deal with legally binding changes to the backstop.
Over a series of meetings with Tory backbenchers on both the Remain and Leave sides this week, details of which have been shared with BuzzFeed News, Julian Smith lobbied colleagues to help Theresa May pressure the EU into making concessions on the backstop, the insurance policy that keeps the Irish border open in all circumstances.
At one meeting, Smith asked MPs if they would support an amendment in the name of 1922 committee chair Graham Brady, which says they would back a deal if the backstop is “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”, according to a source familiar with the discussion.
In earlier talks, Smith discussed coordinating a letter signed by Brexiteers from the European Research Group explicitly stating that they would vote for the withdrawal agreement if the backstop was changed. The plan for a letter was later dropped as focus was directed to an amendment.
Another source said Smith indicated the government could attempt to reopen the withdrawal agreement, something the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier ruled out three times in an interview on Monday. EU and European government officials have also repeatedly rejected suggestions that the backstop could be time-limited.
Smith declined to comment when approached by BuzzFeed News.
Three sources familiar with the meetings said the government now seems more optimistic that changes could be secured. “Something has changed,” one said. “It is clear there has been some sort of movement behind the scenes,” said a second. And another added: “We came away with the impression that Number 10 thinks the EU is willing to change fundamentals.”
But as the chief whip attempted to build support across factions in the Tory party for a message to Brussels on the backstop, several MPs told BuzzFeed News that his efforts were being hampered by distrust among colleagues and division in Downing Street.
One MP said they were sceptical as to whether May would genuinely seek meaningful changes to the backstop if the Brady amendment passed. They questioned if Smith had been given a “licence to bullshit” by Number 10, describing the amendment as a “bait and switch” that could fool the ERG and the Democratic Unionist Party into keeping the PM’s deal alive.
“We have been here before,” they added, referring to Brexiteers’ belief that they have been misled by Downing Street on previous occasions.
The source questioned whether the Brady amendment was designed to find alternative arrangements to replace the backstop now or in the future — for example, during the transition period.
The withdrawal agreement in its current form already allows for the latter, according to a letter sent to May by Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker on Jan. 14.
A government source told BuzzFeed News that Smith believes securing changes to the backstop is the only way to get a deal through the Commons.
The source said they suspect Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party will pivot to supporting a so-called Norway-style “EEA-plus” deal with a permanent customs union.
Smith believes a soft Brexit could split the Tory party and is fighting an internal battle in Downing Street with others who are more open to the idea, the source said.
An ERG source said the demands of most Brexiteers and the DUP have been consistent, and that 80% of Leave-supporting MPs would vote for a deal if the backstop is either replaced or time-limited. “The reason we are being more conciliatory now is because we are being told by Number 10 that it’s attainable,” they said.
Additional reporting by Alberto Nardelli.