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May’s broken Brexit backstop

Is there something of the Stalin politburo about the way Theresa May runs her cabinet? Credit: PA

Theresa May’s style of cabinet government, according to a number of her ministers, is to allow full and frank discussion of contentious issues by senior ministers, and then get her cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood to produce minutes that reflect the outcome she and he desire, rather than what was actually said.

There is more than a touch of the latter days of the Stalin politburo about her approach, according to one.

But in the note sent to members of her Brexit subcommittee - about what they supposedly agreed on a “backstop” plan to effectively keep the UK following customs-union and single-market rules to make sure the Ireland border stays open, pending assent from the EU on a different technical solution - she seems to have over-reached.

Because for the Brexiter members of the cabinet - especially Davis and Johnson - there is no doubt that the backstop is a Trojan Horse.

They see it as a sinister device to deliver the kind of soft Brexit they see as worse than no Brexit - because the UK would stay under the sway of EU rules, with no chance to influence them.

Killing May's backstop plan could heighten the risk of a bad Brexit Credit: PA

The Brexiters would probably swallow the plan if the backstop contained an unambiguous sunset clause, a precise date for the UK to bust free of the customs union and rule-taking from Brussels.

But the sunset clause as drafted simply says the backstop falls away when other arrangements are ready - and Brexiters inevitably fear that would be never.

They have called May’s bluff. And so far they have blocked the plan being sent to Brussels, as was supposed to happen.

But if they kill the backstop, they risk blowing up any chance of progress on negotiations on the UK’s future commercial and security relationship without the EU - because the rest of the EU has tied such talks to backstop progress.

So in fighting for a purer Brexit they heighten the risk of a bad Brexit or - heaven forfend - no Brexit. What a mess.