Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Groundhog Day as May's Brexit Plan B is just a rehash of Plan A

Meeting: Hillary Benn
Meeting: Hillary Benn
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

After a week of political fireworks at Westminster, yesterday's statement by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons was very much a damp squib.

Anyone expecting detail from Theresa May on how she proposes to move forward with Brexit would have been sorely disappointed.

Nothing was set out before MPs in any meaningful sense.

But it's clear the direction in which the Prime Minister is travelling.

Plan B will be remarkably similar to Plan A, bar tweaking the backstop. "Nothing has changed," said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. "This really does feel a bit like Groundhog Day."

The hope of Remainers within Mr Corbyn's party had been that the Government would decided to work towards a cross-party consensus involving a Norway-style compromise.

Hilary Benn, who chairs the all-party Brexit select committee and who met the Prime Minister last week, effectively admitted they had not won her over. "I am sorry to say while her door may have been open, her mind has remained closed," he said yesterday.

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Rather, the Prime Minister is refusing to take a no-deal off the table, opposing the extension of Article 50 and ruling out a second referendum.

She is setting her sights on an accommodation with the DUP and European Research Group. During meetings last week leading Tory Eurosceptics told her that if she secures changes to the backstop they believe she will get her deal through the House of Commons.

But Parliamentary arithmetic remains incredibly tight. A rebellion by a handful of Tory Remainers - and a couple of Brexiteers for whom Plan B might still be a sellout - would deliver another defeat for the Prime Minister.

And, of course, there is no guarantee that when she comes up with a proposal addressing the concerns of the DUP and Conservative Eurosceptics that Brussels will buy it.

But a sign of division in EU ranks has appeared with Poland suggesting that the Brexit deadlock could be ended by putting a five-year time limit on the backstop.

The country's Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz told a local newspaper: "If Ireland asked the EU to amend the agreement with the British on the backstop so that it would apply temporarily - let's say five years - the matter would be solved. It would obviously be less favourable for Ireland than an indefinite backstop, but much more advantageous than no-deal Brexit."

While his comments shouldn't be blown out of proportion, they are still significant. Until now, as British politics has been ripped apart, the EU has presented a genuinely united front. If that changes in coming weeks, then this whole Brexit business will become even more fascinating and unpredictable.

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