Backstop to the future

Angus Walker

Former ITV News Correspondent

Sitting in that now infamous hotel bar and hearing the UK’s Chief Negotiator Olly Robbins outline a last-minute ‘deal or delay’ strategy was, at the time, a bit of a bombshell.

That scenario then went from what government officials tried to dismiss as a bit of nightcap natter, to becoming reality when the prime minister effectively took no-deal off the table and, lo and behold, warned MPs that they would face ‘deal or delay’ in late March.

Today the Brexit secretary Steve Barclay is back in town along with the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. What’s been rumoured for days may now actually happen today.

Is Theresa May deliberately dragging the backstop question out to force MPs' hands? Credit: PA

The revised UK text on the backstop is, once again, expected to be presented to the EU Commission. It’s been expected for more than a fortnight. Which begs the question: why the delay?

Is the prime minister deliberately dragging this out so MPs are put under even more pressure to back her deal at the last minute?

It’s not as though the backstop is a new concept. The UK and the EU have been tussling over the “all weather” Irish border insurance policy since late 2017. The arguments really didn’t move on at all during 2018.

The prime minister has been promising to get the changes to her deal that her party’s Brexit supporting wing want since she was defeated so soundly in mid January. But, nothing yet.

The UK’s Chief Negotiator Olly Robbins with Dominic Raab. Credit: PA

No one in Brussels is expecting the EU Commission to give much ground. The Irish along with the rest of the EU27 are firm on not altering the wording of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Firmer assurances in the outline of the future trade deal, the Political Declaration, are likely. The key will be the look and language of a third document designed to reassure those who fear the backstop is a trap. So how long can that document be, given so much is locked down?

If Barclay and Cox are here in Brussels today to do a deal then they’ll be under pressure to get on with it.

The accusations that Downing Street is deliberately dragging this out, as Olly Robbins revealed, are getting louder.