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Monday 4 February 2019

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group has told the government compromises on the Irish backstop are unacceptable, it simply has to go.

“Neither a unilateral withdrawal or an end date solve the problems of the backstop. Replacing the current backstop entirely is something all sides could accept,” said Rees-Mogg.

The prime minister is in a bind. the backstop is premised on the EU’s highly dubious claim that a controlled but open border in Ireland is unfeasible at this current point in time (see tweet below from Michel Barnier’s deputy). The only possible compromise, say the EU is for the agreement to be amended, with more optimism given to finding a high-tech solution – the technology is available now, so what if it hasn’t yet been implemented anywhere else, as Barnier’s team constantly argue. Apparently, the word of Brussels is gospel, it was ever thus.

Similarly, the mandarins in Whitehall are unhappy with the logical and reasonable line taken by the ERG on the grounds that it “doesn’t protect the Good Friday agreement”, besides the EU would never accept it.

Mrs May has a mandate to secure “alternative arrangements” to the backstop. Given the hard line taken by Brussels and the government’s over-eagerness to be conciliatory, it’s unsurprising to learn an end date is what they are aiming for. Attorney general Geoffrey Cox is said to be seeking a codicil, a “joint-interpretative instrument” promising that the backstop will not be permanent.

The codicil would amend rather than alter the current terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, which Brussels refuses to do, unless, as points out Henry Newman of think tank Open Europe, a stronger commitment is made to remaining in the Customs Union, which some unnamed ERG figures are willing to entertain, as it will provide the option for unilateral withdrawal.

Even with this parliament, that seems far-fetched. It also detracts attention away from the other serious flaws in the withdrawal agreement highlighted by Boris Johnson in his column.

“We are still proposing to give up £39 billion – a staggering sum – with no clarity over the future relationship,” writes Boris, who worries Tory HQ will see no option but to call a general election.

“If there is [someone at HQ wanting an election] I would like to reach out to that person and shake them warmly by the throat.”

The former mayor of London does not fear the “confused” opposition, the Tories are 7-points up in the polls, but fears Brexit would be betrayed.

“If Tory MPs were asked to go into electoral battle in the next few months, there would be a hole in the heart of our manifesto. I have no idea what we would say about the EU – because after two and a half years of dither the truly astonishing feature of the UK position is that the big questions have still not been answered.”

He’s far from wrong and goes to the heart of why the Tory truce brokered last week by housing minister Kit Malthouse is an illusion, the end-date of which is fast approaching.