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Tuesday 29 January 2019

The government’s best-laid plans for “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, backed by Parliament, look scuppered. Jacob Rees-Mogg, among several MPs will not be voting for the amendment this evening as it does not give the United Kingdom a strong enough hand to convince the EU to drop the Irish backstop.

Sir Graham Brady’s proposal seeks to replace the backstop with some as, yet unidentified substitute, and therein lies the problem. With rumours flying around of an inadequate fudge using the Good Friday Agreement which would have preserved most elements of the backstop, pro-Brexit MPs are rightfully wary of backing a nebulous solution with unforeseeable consequences.

The government and, judging by our Twitter responses, many Brexiteers will be concerned this is a step too far. Brady’s amendment was partly designed to act as a counterweight to Yvette Cooper’s no-to-No-Deal amendment. If the no-to-backstop amendment fails and Cooper’s succeeds the tortuous negotiations with Brussels will be prolonged and the balance tipped in the Remainers’ favour.

However, Rees-Mogg, supported by other high profile Brexiteers has his own plans, struck, not with the government, but the enemy. He has made a spectacular compromise with pro-Remain opponents Nicky Morgan and Stephen Hammond.

Under the “Malthouse compromise” – named after pro-Brexit minister Kit Malthouse who has brokered the deal – Theresa May will go back to Brussels and push for a controlled border in Ireland with “no physical infrastructure”. In the likely event she fails to reach a compromise (see why at the end), Britain will leave on WTO terms, eventually that is, the Remain side insists on delaying the transition period by another year.

Furthermore, under this so-called “managed” WTO withdrawal, Britain would still pay £39bn to the European Union. This compromise is based on the premise that the cost of the disruption caused by “crashing out of the EU” in 60 days’ time together with the diplomatic capital lost with Brussels will exceed almost £40bn. Curious maths for someone who used to education secretary.

The parliamentary arithmetic is clear however. Morgan acts as a lieutenant to Nick Boles who has masterminded the Cooper amendment. She will have surely agreed to betray Boles and act as a self-appointed whip among the Tory traitors and get them to fall behind, thus defeating the amendment. Whether she commands that sort of respect is open to debate.

It is also worth noting that Brady’s contribution to today’s amendment fest has half the signatures of Cooper’s or Labour MP Caroline Spelman’s which simply and ridiculously “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement”. There’s a strong possibility therefore of the government-backed amendment failing at the first hurdle. The Commons’ pro-EU speaker John Bercow will automatically favour Cooper and Spelman over Brady and Andrew Murrison, who wants a 2021 end-date on the backstop.

The Malthouse compromise does not suffer from this fallibility. It is not an amendment, but a directive issued straight to Downing Street bringing together the two viciously opposed sides of the party together, something May has completely and utterly failed to do.

But today’s most pressing matter is the Cooper amendment. Some Conservative MPs will vote for it, but we should not underestimate how many Labour MPs will vote against or abstain after the leadership grudgingly swung behind. Many represent strongly anti-EU constituencies – Cooper’s own seat voted 70% for Leave – the true intentions of the amendment are so thinly veiled Labour MPs know it will cost them dearly to support it.

They will also be conscious of the consequences. Even voters who voted to remain want the charade done with, but now we learn talks could extend until the end of the year if Cooper is successful. The worrying news out of Brussels is that the EU is willing to prolong talks until 2020 – enough time for a general election or a second referendum. Unsurprising, it’s Brussels’ only way out.

“We looked at every border on this earth, every border EU has with a third country – there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls,” said Michel Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand yesterday.

“The negotiators have not been able to explain them to us and that’s not their fault; it’s because they don’t exist.”

Weyand is correct, no such border currently exists, but that does not mean it should not and will not. The EU has completely and utterly bound its reputation with the ludicrous notion that Northern Ireland must remain in the Customs Union. Much like many of the follies throughout human history, once a lie, no matter how confected, is transformed into truth, there’s no turning back, regardless of the body count. The only antidote is a willingness to admit error and act, a quality in short supply among Eurocrats, in spite of the huge demand.

Brussels’ propaganda machine is kicking into overdrive at the moment in solidifying its spectacular balony. Refusing to re-open negotiations is one tactic, Weyand’s histrionics are another.

The EU recognises that it cannot break the deadlock by undoing the backstop and that the current makeup of Parliament and the government will not accept it. From its distorted perspective, the only solution is for Britain to remain in the EU or the Customs Union, and for that to happen, there needs to be a second referendum or a general election, hence the play for time.

That’s not a solution, but a gamble.