Is Theresa May’s trip to Brussels doomed?

Prime minister receives mandate to renegotiate Irish backstop even as EU says withdrawal agreement will not be reopened

An anti-Brexit protesters outside Downing Street
(Image credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

MPs have given Theresa May a mandate to go back to Brussels and try to renegotiate the Irish border backstop, after a small majority voted in favour of an amendment to her Brexit withdrawal bill.

In a generally good night for the prime minister there was one dark cloud as MPs also voted to reject a no-deal Brexit, albeit in a non-binding amendment.

Following last-minute assurances that she would reopen the Brexit withdrawal agreement, both the Democratic Unionist Party and hardline Brexiteers backed calls put forward by chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady for a deal that replaces the Irish border backstop with “alternative arrangements”.

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Speaking after the votes, Theresa May said she would go back to Brussels and secure “legally binding changes” on the backstop, now that MPs had shown there is a majority for it in Parliament.

The Daily Telegraph says “it represents a significant shift in Mrs May's position following a historic defeat last month”.

Yet there was a sense of bewilderment in Brussels after it has repeatedly ruled out either reopening the withdrawal agreement or making significant concessions on the backstop.

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The Guardian reports that in a call to the prime minister yesterday afternoon, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU would not budge on its refusal to renegotiate.

Immediately after the vote, European Council President Donald Tusk said: “The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.”

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it was further stressed by Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar who has a veto over any final agreement, that: “the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation”, and then again by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The prime minister now has two weeks to try and persuade the EU to change its mind before returning to the Commons for a second “meaningful vote” on the deal on 13 February

BBC political correspondent Ben Wright says Theresa May “has set herself a very high bar in the days ahead”, and with the EU already appearing to rule out an concessions and Brexit day looming ever closer, her game of brinkmanship appears to be going to the wire.

What about no deal?

Two legally binding amendments that commentators had thought stood a chance of passing and would potentially have taken a no-deal Brexit off the table were both defeated.

One by the former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, would have given MPs the chance to vote on a range of options such as a customs union, second referendum or to rule out no deal.

The second was put forward by former Labour cabinet minister Yvette Cooper and would have extended Article 50 if Theresa May had not been able to secure a Brexit deal by the end of February. In the end it was defeated by 23 votes, with 14 pro-Brexit Labour MPs and Labour MPs in Leave seats defying the party whip to vote with the government.

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However, a non-binding amendment did see MPs reject a no-deal Brexit by 318 votes to 310.

“May will now be under pressure to soften her Brexit strategy to reflect the will of a majority of MPs,” says the Telegraph.

It could also weaken the prime minister’s negotiating hand by signaling to the EU that the House of Commons would step in to prevent the UK crashing out without a deal if she is not able to win a majority for her agreement.

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