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Wednesday 30 January 2019

Yvette Cooper has been swanning around Westminster of late posing as the de facto leader of the Labour party as she’s attempted to win the backing of MPs and the wider public for her No-to-no-deal amendment. That dream has now “crashed out” so to speak, following last night’s defeat by 321 votes to 298 with the usual suspects from the opposition – Messers Hoey, Flint, Mann, Stringer and Skinner – along with eight others voting against it. Two front benchers abstained. Predictably, 17 Tories of the Grieve, Soubry, Sandbach clan voted in favour. The Labour leadership had issued the whip earlier in the day, but without much intent. Cooper’s position as spokesperson for the party was merely an illusion. Also note, Dominic Grieve’s amendment failed (321 to 301).

Jeremy Corbyn will meet with Theresa May perhaps as soon as this afternoon to discuss compromises after Caroline Spelman’s non-binding amendment – Cooper’s carried the weight of a private members bill behind it – to rule out a no deal won a majority.

“Tonight Parliament has voted to remove the immediate threat of crashing out without a deal on 29 March,” said the actual Labour leader.

“After months of refusing to take the chaos of no deal off the table, the Prime Minister must now face the reality that no deal is not an option.

“I will meet the Prime Minister and others from across Parliament to find a sensible Brexit solution that works for the whole country.”

But don’t be distracted by Corbyn’s sudden act of conciliation. He is obliged to give hope to the powerful Remainer forces in his party by indicating a cross-party compromise that would keep Britain in the Customs Union is possible. It remains improbable.

For one thing, the picture looks considerably rosier for Theresa May after the amendment she was backing won (see below).

Sir Graham Brady’s proposal for “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop passed with the support of effectively nine Labour MPs (Frank Field and Kelvin Hopkins are now independents but follow the Labour whip) cancelling out a band of seven Tory traitors.

The prime minister now has firepower to go back to Brussels with and prise open the wretched withdrawal agreement. The hot topic of discussion in today’s press therefore is, what moves will the EU make?

“The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation,” Donald Tusk’s spokesman said, straight after the Brady amendment had succeeded.

Unsurprising. As explained towards the end of yesterdays’ Brexit Brunch, the EU has expended too much political capital on a binary, and therefore not easily fudgeable issue. The backstop is premised on an “alternative” – open-but-controlled border technology – that doesn’t not yet exist and perhaps ever never will, say Brussels.

Let us hope it stays that way. If the EU don’t budge the WTO beckons. Should May come to a compromise for an even deeper Customs Union-based arrangement with Corbyn, she would only alienate more of her own MPs, many Labour MPs would not stand for it either and the wider electoral consequences would be devastating.

To make matters worse for the prime minister, as pointed out in today’s Telegraph editorial, in these situations the EU only moves when it knows its negotiating partner is supported by a stable majority, citing the case of the wobbly Dutch government trying to get concessions over a Ukrainian resolution in 2016.

A rational strategy. But these circumstances are very different. The majority the EU is looking for does not exist. Parliament loathes Brexit, but that’s the job May has to at least be seen to be carrying out. With less than sixty days left until Britain leaves the EU, all we know is that Parliament hates the backstop and doesn’t want a no deal. The road we’re on, with the EU adamant the backstop must stay, means the former position cancels out the latter. Deadlock leading to WTO.

However, the Times claim there is a third way, literally a third document to add to the binding Withdrawal Agreement and the non-binding political declaration. This addition would be treaty-based, but save the EU the shame of re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement.

Supposedly, the French, Dutch, Italians and Spanish (basically all the big players except Germany – sounds phoney) are reported to think Britain has received too many concessions (what a joke). Reopening talks on a fundamental level will lead to tougher demands over Gibraltar and Fishing Waters.

It seems unlikely that this extra document would carry the weight of a treaty even if it was legally binding, all that’s being mooted at the moment is for “aspirational end dates” and a commitment for the backstop to be operational only for a “short period” – how on earth could Britain or the EU be sued when those flaky terms are inevitably not met. These safeguards would do nothing to avoid Britain remaining in the Customs Union and the Single Market interminably. Only a unilateral right to withdrawal from the backstop would suffice, but that defies the backstop’s purpose, the same applies to an end date. Like we said, binary.

We’ve heard all this nonsense about reassuring language before. The EU needs to face up to the fact their usual tactics won’t work this time. They need to drop their baggage if they want a deal. If not, it’s their loss more than ours.