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Thursday 21 February 2019 

From the outset, Theresa May’s meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday was inauspicious. Those ultra-low expectations were barely met as the two leaders afterwards presented a pretty pointless joint statement comprising of a list of negotiating objectives even though we’re already two weeks into a re-negotiation of an appalling, not to mention limited deal that took eighteen months to assemble in the first place.

“Discussions covered which guarantees could be given with regard to the backstop that underline once again its temporary nature and give the appropriate legal assurance to both sides. Both reconfirmed their commitment to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and to respect the integrity of the EU’s internal market and of the United Kingdom,” the statement reads.

It goes onto contemplate changes to the political declaration, a document of absolutely no political or legal value, given that it is non-binding and lays out an extremely wide remit for a follow-up trade deal, anything from a conventional trade deal to full-blown Customs Union membership, the latter being May’s obvious preference. She shares it with most of her Cabinet.

What on earth have they been doing all this time? May and Juncker have agreed to meet again before the month is out. According to the Times, and contrary to reports yesterday of a crunch Commons vote as soon as next week, “allies” of the prime minister will not be presenting a new deal any time soon. The Sun agrees, having learned from Downing Street that the prime minister will only be able to present “significant progress” to Parliament.

In the run-up to May’s next meeting with Juncker, Geoffrey Cox and Steven Barclay will hold talks with Michel Barnier to further explore ways around the backstop. The aim, says a UK official who spoke to Politico, is to put together enough legal commitments without compromising the backstop. The tweaks under the improved terms of the Withdrawal Agreement will supposedly enable Cox to return to the Commons and use his famous oratory to make a convincing case that it will not be possible for Britain to remain chained to the EU on a permanent basis.

The Mail contradicts the Times, claiming that while Cox’s legal changes would have to be rubber-stamped at a European Council summit, some weeks away, the prime minister may choose to put them to a Commons vote before then. There is merit to this hypothesis, the Sun say Number 10 is worried about Yvette Cooper’s second attempt at getting Parliament to take the lead over withdrawal, scheduled for next week. The familiar four pro-Remain cabinet ministers, Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, David Gauke and David Mundell have apparently threatened to side with Cooper’s amendment if May does not extend Article 50. Calling another meaningful vote would be an effective way of heading off both threats.

Our hunch is the Times are nearer to the truth. In spite of this week’s speight of resignations, for Cabinet to turn against their own government lies just outside the realm of possibility, particularly when the deal currently on the table meets most of their demands anyway. Cooper meanwhile, has already failed once, why would she succeed a second time around, after the prime minister has begun to make promises to Leave-leaning Labour MPs who might have been tempted by the opportunity to help steer Brexit in their direction under Cooper’s proposal.

The fact remains, getting an assurance that the backstop will not last forever without eliminating it entirely is impossible. May knows this, which is why she’s wasting everyone’s time with meetings and declarations that repeat everything that has been said before – for the goodness sake, the shared commitment to a border-free Ireland was made fourteen months ago. May’s real tactic is to present the same deal, plus or minus a meaningless codicil to the Commons, exploiting MPs’ feverish jitters about No Deal and overturning that 230-vote defeat. Don’t bet against members of the newly formed Independent Group eventually succumbing either.

Speaking of, yesterday was a triumph for Leave.EU’s deselection campaign and our cause as a whole as Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry all resigned from the Conservative Party to join Chuka Umunna’s anti-Brexit grouping in Parliament. In case you missed last night’s newsletter, you can find it here.