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Tuesday 5 February 2019

It looks increasingly like the renegotiation of Theresa May’s risible deal will go no further than a legally binding assurance the Irish backstop will not be permanent. Not good enough, not by a long way.

The feeble concession was pitched to the Commons Brexit committee by Martin Selmayr, the Anglophobic secretary general of the European Commission. He then asked the two Brexiteers on the committee, Andrea Jenkyns and John Whittingdale whether they would accept the compromise. Unsurprisingly, they shrugged him off.

Pretty shameful that more didn’t respond in a similar fashion as Selmayr – who is reported to have taken control from Michel Barnier behind the scenes – did not say he would offer the concession.

“We talked around the idea of the letter being written into some sort of legal protocol. Every time someone asked him if it was something he could do, he said, ‘Let me turn around the question, if we were to do that would you be guaranteed to vote for the deal?’ ”, said former minister Stephen Crabb, who was in attendance.

“That’s where some of the more Brexiteer members of the committee wouldn’t say.”

Further to yesterday’s talk of an additional joint interpretative document rather than re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU Commission now proposes quickly inserting the new temporary backstop language into the binding version of the deal before slamming it shut so as to avoid any other issues getting put up for re-negotiation.

Honestly, this is pathetic. The EU is unwilling to put anything worth taking on the table so everything they do propose has to be dressed up as a massive concession.

It’s all about the backstop – the only recent mention of the £39bn bill has been Selmayr’s threat of a total collapse in relations should Britain refuse to pay in the event of No Deal.

The prime minister is in Northern Ireland to get buy-in from the DUP over her plans, she will be followed by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group (AAWG) of Remainer and Leaver MPs currently trying to devise a substitute for the backstop.

The AAWG had an audience with the government with Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay yesterday, but interestingly not “Brexit Sherpa” Olly Robbins, to discuss options for a customs system that would not necessitate border infrastructure.

“They are paying attention to what parliament said about having an alternative to the backstop. Theresa May is clearly taking this exercise seriously,” said a source.

Meanwhile, David Trimble says he intends to launch legal proceedings against the British government over the backstop, which in treating Northern Ireland separately to the rest of the United Kingdom, breaks the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

“It turns the Belfast agreement on its head and does it serious damage,” The former head of the DUP’s Unionist rivals, the UUP told Radio 4 listeners before accusing the government of having “broken its promise”. Lord Trimble is now a Conservative peer and was once a professor of law.

And while it is reassuring to hear serious consideration is finally being given to the backstop and putting together another system it is unfortunate that so little bandwidth is left for HMRC’s game-changing announcement that no matter what happens between now and the end of March, the M20 will not be brought to a standstill by increased customs checks in the aftermath.

“Transitional Simplified Procedures” will be put in place in the event of No Deal meaning road haulage will not be impeded by the need for declarations. It would also likely mean tariffs with the EU would remain at zero using Article 24 of the GATT.

Article 24, which allows two or more parties negotiating a trade agreement to immediately remove tariffs, had already deprived the Remain campaign of one weapon, namely increased costs of imports and less competitive exports, now the other has been wiped out. Constant fearmongering over the South East of England’s arteries becoming a giant car park had reached the point of absolute insanity, no longer.

The transitional procedures will initially last a year, but the very fact the government has announced their implementation means it will do whatever it takes, meaning they will stay in place for as long as they have to.

Finally, some common sense.