Belfast Telegraph

Prime Minister May ‘considering Good Friday deal changes’ in bid to get Plan B passed

Prime Minister Theresa May will unveil her Plan B in the Commons (House of Commons)
Prime Minister Theresa May will unveil her Plan B in the Commons (House of Commons)
Jeffrey Donaldson
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

By David Young

Prime Minister Theresa May is considering amending the Good Friday Agreement in order to get her withdrawal agreement through Parliament, according to reports.

Her Brexit deal was rejected by the House of Commons last week by a majority of 230 MPs.

The Daily Telegraph reports today that Mrs May views amending the 1998 Agreement to include a commitment to no hard border between the UK and the Republic after Brexit as a way of removing the controversial Irish backstop from her withdrawal agreement.

The hope is that doing so would be enough to get her deal through Parliament in a future vote.

Any proposed changes or additions to the Belfast Agreement would require the consent not only of the Irish Government, but of the parties in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister, who spent the weekend at Chequers, her official country retreat, is due to make a statement to MPs today setting out her Plan B on how she intends to proceed with Brexit after her crushing defeat last week.

Her high-stakes move comes as concerns grow about the likelihood of a 'no-deal' Brexit on March 29 - the default outcome if no other arrangements with the EU can be agreed by Parliament by then.

It also comes as a senior DUP MP floated the idea of a free trade agreement with the EU as a possible way forward out of the current Brexit impasse.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the party's chief whip, called for "political maturity" and an end to "megaphone diplomacy" as the clock ticks down to a disorderly Brexit.

The Lagan Valley MP said his party was "ready to engage" to find a way forward that avoids a hard border.

"I believe it is possible to arrive at a UK-wide solution that protects both the integrity of the UK and the EU and avoids a hard border," he told the Sunday Independent.

"Certainly, such an outcome avoids a hard Brexit but it doesn't mean the UK staying in the single market.

"A new free trade agreement with the European Union should provide for customs arrangements that accommodate North-South co-operation without creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea."

Sir Jeffrey's remarks were yesterday being interpreted as a softening of the DUP's hardline position on Brexit, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also saying that "UK-wide solutions are possible" to end the Brexit crisis.

It is understood that Mr Varadkar and his deputy Simon Coveney are planning to meet the DUP later this week to discuss Brexit in the wake of the devastating issues.

Sir Jeffrey put forward his free trade agreement proposals on social media at the weekend, saying: "Any solution must respect the integrity of both the United Kingdom and EU - but also the progress made in developing relationships on these islands.

"This is above all about future relationships and we need to show the political maturity that the challenge demands of us - all of us."

However, it was not immediately clear how the Irish Government's commitment to the backstop could be accommodated as part of a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU.

Dublin's determination to hold on to the border backstop has won it praise at home, but has been criticised by some in the UK as inflexible.

Resistance to the backstop from Conservatives and their DUP allies was a major contributor to the defeat of Mrs May's withdrawal agreement.

Fears are now growing that Dublin's intransigence over the backstop makes a no-deal Brexit more likely.

Trade Minister Liam Fox said yesterday that one way to break the deadlock could be an agreement with the Irish Government on an "alternative mechanism" to the backstop.

"I'm not asking them to change their position," he said.

"We actually agree that no matter what, there should be an agreement that ensures that there's no hard border between the United Kingdom and Ireland.

"The question is, can we achieve what the Irish government wants and what we want by a different mechanism?"

He said that could ease concerns about the current backstop proposal, which would keep Northern Ireland in an EU customs union unless and until an alternative arrangement is agreed.

However, his idea was instantly shot down by Irish government sources, who said anybody talking about side deals needed to go back and study "the basics" of how the negotiations work.

"Ireland is part of the EU27 which negotiates as a block," a source said. "There are no bilateral deals."

And yesterday Dublin reiterated its commitment to the backstop.

Mr Coveney tweeted: "For the record, the Taoiseach and I have always been on the same page on Brexit, and we remain united and focused on protecting Ireland.

"That includes continued support for the EU/UK agreed WA (Withdrawal Agreement) in full, including the backstop as negotiated.

"As Brexit dominates news coverage, no surprise that some analysis today gets it wrong.

"I can reassure you the Irish Government's commitment to the entire Withdrawal Agreement is absolute - including the backstop to ensure, no matter what, an open border between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement are protected."

What could happen after the Prime Minister presents her proposals for a revised deal to Parliament

Theresa May resigns:

While the PM has said she will not lead the Tories into another general election, she has consistently ruled out quitting before Brexit.

Plan B is activated:

The Prime Minister has yet to reveal what her fallback position is. Under the terms of an amendment tabled by Dominic Grieve and controversially passed by MPs, today is her deadline to present a new plan to MPs.

While the details of this Plan B are not clear, the chairman of the Eurosceptic European Research Group Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote in the Mail on Sunday that it was possible for Mrs May to get a deal through the Commons if she persuaded the EU to show flexibility on the backstop and £39bn divorce bill.

“If I had to choose between a no-deal and Mrs May’s original accord, I would have no hesitation of opting for no-deal Brexit, but even Mrs May’s deal would be better than not leaving at all,” he wrote.

It’s good to talk:

Mrs May has offered to talk to Opposition parties and groups with different desires and views to find consensus in Parliament. But her refusal to abandon no-deal Brexit and other leaders’ refusal to speak properly until she does, suggests one party will need to cede some ground.

Also writing in the Mail on Sunday, chief Brexit representative for the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt said: “If necessary, this document could still be enhanced in the next coming weeks.

“British politicians will always find an open door to do that, but they must act soon.

“This will only happen if political parties in the UK start to work together.

“Such a cross-party approach is not natural to the adversarial UK political system, but it’s time to change course and to put the national interest ahead of narrow party political interests.”

Confidence vote 2.0:

The Opposition can in theory call as many of these votes as they like, although the Lib Dems have said they will not support another as they believe it is a waste of time.

Such a vote could trigger a general election but this is very much the nuclear option for Tory rebels and the DUP has already said it will not vote with Labour, so it appears to be unlikely.

Back to Brussels for more talks:

The EU has said repeatedly that it will not reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, and “assurances” on the Irish border backstop were dismissed by Brexiteers earlier this week. There is little time and no clear indication what more the EU can or wants to offer. France has stepped up its no-deal preparations.

Asking for an extension of Article 50:

Mrs May has previously insisted almost to the point of foot-stamping that Britain will leave the EU on March 29, and a U-turn here would enrage already puce Brexiteers.

But writing in The Observer, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: 

“The PM has pushed us dangerously close to the exit door with perilously little left on the clock.

“So it’s vital that immediate steps be taken to extend Article 50.

“Not to stop Brexit, but to ensure that there’s time to force a change of Government, or find a solution Parliament can back.”

Halting of Article 50:

A court case last year ruled that, while all 27 other EU states have to agree to extend the Article 50 process of leaving, the UK can unilaterally reverse it.

Neither the Tories nor Labour support a halt, but Philip Hammond reportedly told business leaders in a conference call on Wednesday that a bill being rustled up by backbenchers would have this as its aim.

A second referendum:

Labour members at conference left the door open to supporting a new vote on leaving if the party could not trigger a general election. Mr Corbyn was applauded by Labour activists when he pointed this out in a speech on Thursday. But he also indicated he would rather leave with a Labour-flavoured withdrawal agreement.

Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve (below) wrote in the Sunday Times: “I have made no secret of my support for the People’s Vote campaign, but it is important to recognise that this idea may well gain support only at the end of a process when every possible Brexit option has been explored.

“I do not doubt that legislating for a new referendum is a difficult decision and the last resort for many MPs. “

No-deal Brexit:

If Theresa May loses and Parliament cannot come together behind an alternative, the UK will leave the European Union on March 29 without a deal.

This is something to either be afraid of, or not afraid of, depending on your view of Brexit.

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