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Wednesday 20 February 2019

Theresa May is in Brussels today to meet with Jean-Claude Juncker amid increasing suspicions the British prime minister’s objective is not to find a way around the Irish backstop, but to merely give that impression and run down the clock, forcing MPs, pro and anti-Brexit alike to vote for the same wretched deal resoundingly defeated in the Commons last month.

If this were not the case, May would be arriving in Brussels with something to talk about. However, “there isn’t enough movement for me to be able to expect this to be a discussion with a concrete outcome. I don’t know what Mrs May will communicate to me tomorrow,” said Mr Juncker at a speech in Stuttgart yesterday.

“I’m losing my time with this Brexit,” added the European Commission President.

He’s not the only one. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius claims Brexit secretary Steven Barclay, who has spent the week in Brussels supposedly laying the groundwork for today’s meeting, “doesn’t have political authority.” Barclay’s meetings with His opposite number, Michel Barnier are “consultations, maybe.”

Hardly a revelation, Barclay’s predecessors, David Davis and Dominic Raab were similarly neutered, but Linkevičius also adds his widely held suspicion that May is just dealing out hot air as she plays for time.

The bottle containing this mysterious gas is labelled “Malthouse compromise”. On this side of the Channel, it is doing a fine job of lulling MPs into thinking the backstop may be done with.

The plan, formulated by minister Kit Malthouse, to get the withdrawal agreement signed off with “alternative arrangements” over the border in Ireland pushed back to the second round of negotiations at the expense of the backstop is plagued by mixed messages.

Robert Peston cites two different Cabinet Ministers, one claims the prime minister is armed with a coherent plan, namely the Malthouse compromise, while the other warns that the compromise comes with alterations: the alternative arrangements will be negotiated after the withdrawal agreement has been signed, the backstop will not be touched.

In other words, the Malthouse compromise is being compromised further, taking the shape of the deal currently on the table.

The talk around Westminster however is that a new deal will be put to Parliament next week, lowering suspicions May is delaying. If that is the case, we should know more by the end of today’s meeting.

Unsurprisingly, expectations are low. It seems this week that every Europen politician directly involved with the talks is taking their turn to slam any suggestion the backstop can be altered or done or away with.

“There can be no limit to the backstop, there can’t be an automatic expiration of the backstop,” said Germany’s Europe minister Michael Roth. “Time is pressing. The UK’s exit… will take place on March 29 because she hasn’t given any signals that there will be a delay,” added Roth’s French counterpart Nathalie Loiseau. Linkevičius said “clarifications” is all Britain has a right to expect.

These statements point to nothing more than some fancy wording contained within an additional “joint interpretive text” authored by attorney general, Geoffrey Cox – who will join Juncker, May and Barclay at today’s meeting.

Cox is “not behaving like a man who thinks he has a solution,” says one of Peston’s Cabinet sources, an impression seconded by the Spectator, whose own Cabinet informers are “optimistic” about winning a concession over a codicil – the aforementioned, joint text. Hardly inspiring. No wonder Senior Tory Brexiteer Steve Baker tells the Times he is looking for “further precision”.

With both sides occupying such different positions, the prospect of  No Deal looks brighter than ever. “The Dutch Brexit rapporteurs have been in London this week in meetings with U.K. politicians from right and left. I asked one how it went. He told me he’s returning to the Netherlands and recommending that preparations for no deal be redoubled,” tweeted a journalist at Politico.

Resignations update: According to ITV, two or three Tory MPs are expected to resign the whip and join the independent group of former Labour MPs. The two are widely expected to be Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston, the third is Anna Soubry, say Newsnight.

Labour’s original “gang of seven” – now eight, following Joan Ryan’s defection last night – bear the varnish of a Eurofanatics club. Credentials, the arrival of Soubry and Wollaston will only burnish further. At a more fundamental level, it’s a band of rejects. The New Statesman reveals that Ryan is the fourth member to resign from the Labour party after losing a no-confidence vote among Labour voters. Thanks to Leave.EU’s deselection campaign (alder tweet above), the three Tory MPs and many others face similar dangers. Far from being a threat, the Independent Group is emerging as a useful refuse bin for Parliament’s many Brexit bashers.

But hope is at hand (for Remainers that is). John Major has urged Tory “moderates” to remain within the ranks to stop Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group from consuming the party. At a speech in Glasgow, the former leader appealed to “moderate, pragmatic and tolerant Conservatism” to rescue the party from real conservativism. Pretty feeble stuff. The ERG represents the Party’s grassroots and what could be moderate and pragmatic than restoring control over our borders and accelerating global trade? Westmonster have a write-up.