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Friday 1 February 2019 

After yet another historic week in Parliament, Brexiteers’ understanding of what lies ahead is defined more by what is impossible than what is probable. For starters, we know that, barring a major development, the threat of Remaining in the European Union or of a second referendum is dead.

Rightly, there were major concerns that Tuesday’s amendments by Dominic Grieve and Yvette Coopers could wreak havoc by delaying Brexit and wrestling control over withdrawal from the Government to Parliament. However, both proposals failed, which tells us that, for all the pro-Remain tendencies in Westminster, the Eurofanatics do not command a majority.

If they can’t get a highly speculative member’s bill approved – which Cooper’s attempt would have ushered in – how on earth can they have realistic hopes for legislation as controversial as a second referendum.

Where Grieve and Cooper failed, Sir Graham Brady succeeded. Unsurprising, as the purpose of his amendment was to tell the Government that the Irish backstop is intolerable, a message already made loud and clear by the record 230 vote defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement. But the result was far from guaranteed. The backstop is Brussels’ baby. For May to go back to the EU capital demanding its removal heightens the risk of No Deal, which is why Tory Remainers were loath to vote for it. However, some did, even they recognise the backstop has to go.

“The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. Yesterday, we found out what the UK doesn’t want. But we still don’t know what the UK does want.” Complained European Council President, Donald Tusk. No, not yet.

The Irish backstop is binary and therefore unfudgeable (see explanation near the bottom of this page), now the EU has to find a way of taking it out without losing face. But first, as Mr Tusk and his fellow Eurocrats obsess in pointing out, the UK needs to say what it wants.

The EU is always reluctant to move until the country on the other side of the table knows what it wants and has its parliament behind it – see the Telegraph’s example of the Netherlands.

Brussels thought the Withdrawal Agreement could get a Commons majority, its judgement let it down spectacularly badly. Furthermore, the passage of Brady’s amendment by 317 to 301 was hardly convincing. The EU will only be inclined to reopen talks once it knows May’s negotiating position is on a stable footing.

The Prime Minister is mandated to demand the backstop’s removal but she hasn’t got a majority. Regrettably, May has entered Labour territory to get it.

On first inspection, the opening of talks with Jeremy Corbyn at Downing Street are a major cause for concern. His party wants to remain in the Customs Union and that is the only offer the European Commission says it will consider. Fortunately, the European Research Group is simply too powerful to allow a Customs Union based arrangement through.

Instead, it is understood May is looking to bring twenty or so Labour MPs onside to cancel out her revolting anti-Brexit MPs. Cash to the deindustrialised Labour heartlands plus permanent alignment with EU environment and employment regulations via a last-minute bill are being offered in return for their support.

Corbyn’s preoccupation is to not be seen to be actively supporting the Tories. He still holds out hope of winning a no-confidence vote against the Government, but with the withdrawal date fast approaching the Labour leader feels obliged to cooperate and avoid No Deal.

As things stand, the Prime Minister is poised to dampen EU fears Britain will restore its competitive edge by erasing a huge amount of harmful European regulations from the statute books in return for removal of the backstop. How Brussels will respond is anyone’s guess. The obvious fudge is for the “Malthouse compromise” to be co-opted by Michel Barnier and the can kicked even further down the road.

On Monday, it was revealed housing minister Kit Malthouse had brokered a deal within the Conservatives, between the ERG and Remainers led by Nicky Morgan for Britain to pay the £39bn and extend the transition period by a year. If a solution to the Irish backstop isn’t unearthed during that time, Britain would finally detach on WTO terms on the eve of 2022.

A case of party before country? The plan has united the Conservatives but is riddled with flaws. It hands the EU all that underserved cash and gives Westminster’s powerful Remain forces much too much time to execute their Single Market agenda.

Miraculously, the Malthouse plan evades all of the EU’s red lines. Barnier could save face while capitals across Europe breath a huge sigh of relief before quickly plotting how to extract more and more concessions from Mrs May or whoever takes her place.

The other possibility, even more of a can-kicking exercise, is to prolong Article 50. On the Today Programme yesterday, Jeremy Hunt said negotiations might need to be prolonged if an agreement arrived late in the day and not enough time remained to get Brexit legislation through. Downing Street then stated the Government was committed to the existing timetable before being contradicted by reports of Sajid Javid echoing Hunt’s remarks.

A tragedy because Europe is headed for its knees. It can ill-afford to fantasise about backstops when retaining privileged access to the UK market is both in jeopardy and an absolute necessity. Of the Continent’s three big players, France is gripped by a political crisis, its economy has stopped growing. The ECB has told Italy’s Banks to recapitalise, but they can only sell bonds at extortionate rates, total collapse beckons, and Germany is facing a technical recession. A group of top German economists has told the EU to “abandon its indivisibility dogma”, Britain should have whatever trade deal it wants.

By contrast, Theresa May does have the right to be dogmatic. The PM is on the verge of returning to Brussels and undoing some (by no means all) of her mistakes. She must not underestimate the strength of her hand.