Theresa May’s deal is back on the table. Will it be more appetising the second time? Emily Hohler reports.
A week after she suffered the “biggest parliamentary defeat of modern times” and for all her “fine words about cross-party engagement”, Prime Minister Theresa May is still “refusing to budge” over her Brexit withdrawal bill, says Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. Her “tantalisingly billed” Plan B turned out to be “Plan A in a false moustache”.
In her statement to the Commons on Monday she insisted the centrepiece of her strategy is negotiating changes to the Irish backstop. She also reiterated that a second referendum could undermine “faith in our democracy” and refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit, “claiming the only way to do so was to accept her deal – or revoke Article 50 altogether”, say Heather Stewart and Jennifer Elgot in The Guardian.
Drop the backstop
The Northern Ireland backstop is the critical issue, says Boris Johnson in The Daily Telegraph, but there is nothing our MPs can do to “change that text” in the withdrawal deal. That is why May must now return to Brussels “with a real take-it-or-leave-it determination” and get them to take the backstop out, or at the “very least give us a legally binding change… that allows for the UK to come out of its own accord”.
Then we will be able to say that the agreement, while “imperfect”, is “at least tolerable”. It will also “unite her party; and the national feeling of relief will be astounding”. There are large numbers of MPs who want to stop Brexit, and are hatching “absurd plots” – endless “amendments, feints, ruses, motions” – to do so. But they won’t stop Brexit, and by “seeming so blatantly to go against the wishes of the electorate” they will merely contribute to the sense of a growing divide between the public and the political elite.
So what are May’s chances of securing concessions, ask Karla Adam and William Booth in The Washington Post. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, shifted some of the onus back on the EU, saying “we have a responsibility to shape a divorce process” so people don’t ask us why we didn’t compromise 50 years from now.
The Polish foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, suggested limiting the Irish backstop to five years. Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief spokesman responded by saying the withdrawal deal was “not open to negotiation” and told reporters it was “pretty obvious” that border infrastructure (ie, a hard border) would be needed if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal – remarks the Democratic Unionist Party’s Brexit spokesman, MP Sammy Wilson, described as “belligerent bluffing”, says Daniel Boffey in The Guardian.
If a five-year limit to the backstop found favour with other member states, that “could well do the trick”, as would a “unilateral withdrawal mechanism for the UK”, says Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times. For now, both Ireland and the EU are standing firm, but resolve will be tested “the closer we move towards the prospect of a crash Brexit”.
Even if May does secure changes to the backstop, the objections of many Tory MPs go “way beyond” this “narrow issue”, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. True, but some of the “most boisterous Brexiters”, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, have changed their tone in recent days, realising they
“risk allowing perfect to become the enemy of the good”, says Payne. May’s Brexit is “far from” the “buccaneering vision of ‘taking back control’”, but “opposing it could result in no Brexit at all”. Perhaps they will stand firm and Parliament will “take control and direct what happens next”, but “an orderly Brexit” is in the interests of all the key players. May’s deal “may not be quite dead”.
Second-vote juggernaut is unstoppable
To avoid a “catastrophic crash-out” from the EU on 29 March, MPs have begun “wresting control of the process from the government”, says the Financial Times. This is a “justifiable effort to forge consensus” in the absence of a working government majority. MPs should “legislate against a no-deal outcome” and seek to extend Article 50. They should then hold “indicative votes to test support for other options”. However, if none can win a majority and Theresa May’s deal “remains deadlocked”, then a second referendum seems the only option, it says.
Voters don’t seem “very keen for MPs to pass them the buck”, says John Curtice in The Daily Telegraph. Popular support for a second vote is not as great as the People’s Vote campaigners suggest. According to polls, around two-thirds of Remainers would like one, but only one in eight Leavers would.
A second referendum would be the “most bitter and divisive event in modern history” and would probably be a tight contest, says William Hague in the same paper. But, by a process of elimination, it is coming. “The deal as it stands cannot be passed”, an improved deal is “a long shot”, a hard exit “can be killed off”, calling a general election is
too risky and cross-party agreement on a new plan looks improbable as Jeremy Corbyn (who has endorsed a plan for MPs to vote on whether a second referendum should be held, notes The Independent) won’t even talk to Theresa May. It must also be remembered Brexit is not a single event. Any plan needs “a majority to sustain both it and the government” over many months – winning votes and passing laws.
A second vote will be a tragedy, “because as the world economy slows down, the West fragments, and new great scientific and ecological challenges arise, we will have another year of arguing with ourselves. But it’s not hard, after the events of the last week, to see it coming”.