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Wednesday 6 February 2019

Theresa May will not be seeking to replace the backstop. Speaking in Belfast yesterday the prime minister revealed her lack of understanding of what the word “alternative” means, telling journalists:

“I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future.

“What Parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop.”

No, Parliament called for “alternative arrangements” – wholesale change, not minor tweaks. Westmonster have a write-up.

No surprise though, as reported in yesterday’s Brexit Brunch, both London and Brussels are moving towards shoving in extra legal language to the effect that Britain will not remain in the Irish backstop forever and ever, but no-one is talking about a sunset clause. The compromise we are headed for is truly pitiful.

According to Politico, Brussels is now considering a codicil type clarification – aka legal interpretation. We seem to be going backwards, the rumour yesterday was that the Withdrawal Agreement would be reopened and amended with assurances. They amount to the same thing of course and neither come anywhere near satisfactory, but the symbolism is striking: yet again, even with the additional leverage provided by the Brady amendment, May finds a way of making concessions.

The backstop is staying and the prime minister is cynically using above average support for it in Northern Ireland to persuade mainland United Kingdom that it’s not all that bad. It is, very bad.

“I remain adamant that the backstop goes against the referendum result as it could mean the UK having to follow EU rules for an indefinite time without having any say over them. A red line that many of my colleagues will not accept,” writes Brexiteer MP Andrea Jenkyns in the Telegraph.

The route being taken by Mrs May denies her the votes of the likes of Jenkyns, who number around 30 in the House of Commons. The plan is to substitute those list votes with support from the opposition benches. On Monday, Labour MP Caroline Flint called upon her colleagues to vote for any “reasonable” deal put forward by the government. Provided the oft-mentioned guarantees of retaining EU employment and environmental regulations are enshrined in the arrangement it is perfectly feasible the prime minister could get the 30-odd votes from Labour to make up the deficit from her own side.

A great deal, therefore, hinges on the DUP’s position, which again explains May’s two-day trip to Northern Ireland. Thus far, Arlene Foster – who will hold talks with May today – has said her party will give their backing if the backstop issue can be resolved, but no more than that. Let’s hope she insists on an alternative, a real one.

Speaking of which, David Davis presents his high-tech solution to the Irish border today.

“Our proposed FTA would lower barriers to trade and, through mutual recognition, would improve domestic regulation on both sides,” writes Davis in the Telegraph.

“Secondly, since the draft text is based on commitments that the EU has already made in different settings – including its agreement with Canada, its recent accord with Japan, and other sectoral agreements such as the EU-New Zealand Veterinary Agreement – it cannot be said to undermine the single market or any other part of the EU project.” Davis’s paper, written with former trade minister Greg Hands will be released this morning.

No doubt it will consist of the obvious solutions: GPS, number plate recognition, checks away from the border – options the EU refuses to consider.

But Davis is not the only one making progress on that front. The Sun reports Japanese tech firm Fujitsu has made a pitch to the government and will have proof of concept trials using 100 road hauliers in time for March 29. The system will enable tariffs (if indeed they are necessary) to be paid electronically and will use artificial intelligence to identify smugglers, along with all the usual devices and systems as mentioned above.

Everyone, except the prime minister it would seem, has tech on the brain. Angela Merkel “is waiting for London to come forward with concrete proposals about how it [technology and a sophisticated customs scheme] would work,” a source in Berlin told the Times.

On this basis, “Dublin will come under a lot of pressure over the coming weeks to work constructively with London.” Merkel still supports the backstop but wants solutions allowing for a conventional customs border in Ireland to be implemented as soon as possible.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar flies to Brussels today for a chat with Donald Tusk. If the Times story is to be believed, he will in all likelihood be assured the backstop is staying with extra verbiage about a technological border inserted or appended to the Withdrawal Agreement to get it through the House of Commons.

This time last week, the Remainers in that chamber were resoundingly defeated. Brexiteers scored a notable victory. A week on, we seem to be in an even worse position.