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How far will the Brexiter ERG MPs capitulate?

There are fewer than four weeks until the UK is due to leave the EU. Credit: PA

The negotiating mandate for the EU’s Brussels team, which is up against the UK's Attorney General Geoffrey Cox - who is leading for the PM in trying to make the Northern Ireland backstop more palatable to DUP and Tory Brexiter MPs - has NOT changed in any fundamental way.

I've checked, and it remains the case EU leaders have not and will not sanction putting an end date on the backstop. Nor will they provide the UK with a unilateral route out of the backstop. Terminating the backstop will - the EU continues to insist - always be a joint EU/UK decision.

So the life-or-death question for Theresa May's Brexit deal is whether the DUP and the ERG Brexiters will move from their current position of contemplating a decent and honourable surrender, in which they retain a fig leaf of hope one day they’ll enjoy an approximation of the one-true Brexit, or whether they will seamlessly glide to writhing craven capitulation.

Will MPs move from their current position of contemplating a decent and honourable surrender to May's deal? Credit: PA

For the avoidance of doubt, many of them have already abandoned some of their reddest lines.

They'd originally wanted the treaty that is the Withdrawal Agreement explicitly opened up and reworded.

That ain’t happening.

The best they can expect is the legal consequences of the Withdrawal Agreement will be made more palatable by a so-called codicil or interpretive legal document.

They’ve also abandoned any hope that the current customs-union based backstop, with what they see as toxic regulatory differentiation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, would be replaced by their adored “alternative arrangements” of bog-standard free trade deal and tech-based invisible border checks.

Can May fix the backstop issue before the clock runs down? Credit: PA

But some of them retain residual hope that the legal panjandrum Cox will credibly be able to describe his codicil as proving beyond reasonable doubt the backstop cannot be an eternal trap.

Well if he were to advance that argument, it could surely only be as an argument based on the overwhelming balance of probabilities - but not as legally certain and binding FACT.

To be clear, his codicil will describe a probable process through the backstop to a long-term relationship with the EU that Brexiters can tolerate. But it seems inconceivable that he will be able to prove that such escape from the backstop is a cast-iron certainty.

Now, because the ERG no longer see Cox as their cabinet champion, but as the dodgy silk defending a prime minister they see as stealing and corrupting their beloved Brexit, they have deployed their finest legal brains, under Bill Cash and Martin Howe, to provide their own interpretation of Cox’s interpretation.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox leaves Downing Street. Credit: PA

I assume it will take them the best part of a minute to rule that they’ve been had.

So does that mean yet again Theresa May’s meaningful vote on her reworked Brexit is lost before it even takes place?

Well that all depends on whether enough Labour MPs are so irked by Corbyn’s belated if tepid conversion to the referendum cause that they defy him and vote in sufficient numbers to offset the 40 odd ERG Tories who will never swallow Cox’s codicil.

As I said a couple of days ago, the Labour-for-ERG trade delivers “dare-to-dream” odds for May. But a nightmare ending for her is still more likely (as her cabinet ministers admit in private, if never in public).