Fox urges MPs to support new Irish backstop plan

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has urged Tory MPs to give Theresa May a “strong mandate” to return to Brussels to negotiate changes to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop.

Ahead of a series of Commons votes which could help shape the next phase of talks with the EU, Mr Fox said the Prime Minister was ready to reopen the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in order to secure a legally-binding text.

At a meeting of Tory MPs in Westminster on Monday, Mrs May called on them to get behind an amendment tabled by influential chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady calling for “alternative arrangements” to the backstop.

Brexit
Theresa May is urging MPs to back changes to the Irish backstop (House of Commons/PA)

Conservative MPs were informed that they would be whipped to vote for the amendment – assuming it is selected by Commons Speaker John Bercow.

Her hopes of gaining a Commons majority for the plan received an initial setback after Jacob-Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), said they were not prepared to support it and it did not change anything.

However, he suggested that he could be prepared to support it if the amendment had official Government backing.

“Let’s see what the Prime Minister says at the despatch box today and what the Brady amendment really means,” he told the BBC.

“If the Brady amendment is a Government amendment, effectively, that means the Withdrawal Agreement will be reopened; that’s very different from a worthy backbench motion that doesn’t do anything.

“So let’s just wait and see on that.”

The ERG’s rejection had come after former foreign secretary Boris Johnson appeared to suggest he could back Sir Graham’s amendment – although he was later reported to have been involved in a series of sharp exchanges with Mrs May on the issue at Monday’s meeting.

Mr Fox, however, insisted that backing the amendment would strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand when it came to reopening negotiations on the backstop – intended to ensure there is no return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“I think we should send the Prime Minister back to Brussels with a strong mandate to be able to say if you compromise with us on this one issue, on the backstop, we would be able to a get an agreement – an agreement that is almost there,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Both the EU and the Irish government have been adamant that there can be no question of reopening the Withdrawal Agreement.

Ireland’s European Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee, said: “There can be no change to the backstop. It was negotiated over 18 months with the UK and by the UK. A bit of realism is needed at this stage.”

However, Mr Fox said he believed attitudes on the EU side on the need to find a compromise were changing in the light of the growing economic uncertainty.

“We have seen the German economy weakening, we have seen the French economy weakening,” he said.

“I think this view – ‘We can simply weather out any disturbance that would occur from a no-deal’ – I think there is much less appetite for that. I think we still have time to reach a compromise on that.”