Theresa May seeks reassurances from EU over Brexit deal

Theresa May has embarked on a fresh round of Brexit diplomacy after emerging from a confidence vote of Tory MPs bloodied and bruised but victorious.

The Prime Minister flew to Brussels where she will ask EU leaders for assurances on the temporary nature of backstop arrangements for the Irish border in the hope of securing MPs’ support for her Withdrawal Agreement.

Reports from the European Council summit suggested the leaders are considering a draft document stating the EU “stands ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided” to the UK on the backstop.

Ahead of the formal opening of the two-day summit, Mrs May met Irish premier Leo Varadkar and was also due to speak with Council president Donald Tusk and Luxembourg’s PM Xavier Bettel.

It is understood she may also have a one-on-one meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

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After a day of drama in Westminster, the Prime Minister continued to face calls for her resignation from hardline Brexiteers including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said her 200-117 victory indicated she had lost the confidence of a third of her MPs and more than half of backbenchers.

She still had to figure out a solution to the dilemma of how to convince the EU to tweak the Withdrawal Agreement so it will be passed by Parliament.

Mrs May was forced to pull a Commons motion endorsing the deal earlier this week after admitting she was facing a heavy defeat if she took it to a vote.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Speaking in Downing Street after Wednesday’s vote, she promised to seek “legal and political assurances” on the backstop, which would keep the UK within a customs union with the EU until a broader trade deal is concluded, to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

The scale of this task was highlighted by Mr Varadkar and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who insisted in a phone call that the Withdrawal Agreement “cannot be reopened or contradicted”.

DUP leader Arlene Foster insisted that “tinkering around the edges” of the agreement would not be enough to win the support of her party, which wanted “fundamental legal text changes”.

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said the PM should take a tough line with EU leaders, threatening to withhold a “divorce bill” of up to £39 billion agreed last year as the price of UK liabilities on its departure.

He urged Mrs May to “say to the EU now ‘your £39 billion is fully at risk. We are not committed to the £39 billion unless we get some resolution’.

“They know that this backstop can be completely replaced by an open borders policy. Push them to the point where they recognise they have to do that and it resolves everything.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Tory Leavers and the DUP have branded the backstop “unacceptable” as it would prevent the UK from doing trade deals and subject the country to EU rules with no means of leaving without approval from Brussels.

Mrs May has made clear she still intends to push her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament, with the remaining two days of debate and votes due to take place “before January 21”.

But Downing Street said no date had been fixed for returning the agreement to the Commons.

Mrs May’s victory in the confidence vote means another challenge cannot be mounted against her position as Tory leader for a year.

But she still faces the danger of a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons, which could bring her Government down if backed by more than half of MPs.

John McDonnell
John McDonnell

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell urged Mrs May to bring her deal back to Parliament to establish what outcomes MPs were willing to accept.

“I think there’s an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons against no deal,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Let’s establish that once and for all and use parliamentary mechanisms to narrow that option away. Then let’s get a proper debate going.

“That’s why it would have been better to have the vote this week as she promised. That would have tested the will of Parliament, that would have set parameters, and it would have been a clear message to our EU partners as well.”