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Theresa May hints she intends to tweak backstop rather than find replacement

Has Theresa May let slip she wants to tweak the backstop deal? Credit: PA

Theresa May dropped three hints on Tuesday in Belfast that her Plan A to get a Brexit deal through Parliament is to tweak/seek reassurances to the controversial backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement that was roundly rejected by MPs in January, rather than find a replacement.

The biggest hint came during a 45 minute behind-close-doors meeting with Northern Irish business leaders.

Privately, the Prime Minister suggested to them she was looking for a legally-binding time limit to the backstop, ITV News has been told.

One business leader present said Mrs May left them in little doubt that was the route to a Parliamentary majority.

Then there was this answer she gave to our colleagues at UTV during a press conference earlier in the day: “I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy, what Parliament has said is it wants changes to the backstop.”

Theresa May chairs a discussion during her visit to Belfast. Credit: PA

The European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Brexiteers are not happy with this.

One of its members, Conservative MP Mark Francois, has made it clear to us this was NOT what they signed up for when they backed the Brady amendment last week.

They want the backstop replaced.

DUP leader Arlene Foster was equally as unequivocal, reminding the Prime Minister: “We need a replacement to current backstop.”

Thirdly, take a look at this extract from Mrs May's speech: “So while I have said that technology could play a part and that we will look at alternative arrangements, these must be ones that can be made to work for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement of the Malthouse Compromise proposed by her backbench MPs, which suggests repacking the backstop with technological solutions to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

At best Mrs May is setting the bar high for those MPs, at worst (for them) she’s dismissing the idea as unworkable from the off.

Downing Street sources are keen to play down any shift in position, insisting all options remain on the table including replacing the much-despised backstop.

But anyone watching the Prime Minister in Belfast on Tuesday wouldn’t have to work too hard to pick up the signs that her instincts haven’t changed - she is still appears to be pinning her hopes adjusting rather than ripping up the original plan she agreed with the EU back in November.