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Brexit still in shadows

As May makes another desperate bid for Brexit, the Backstop element continues to sabotage the deal ahead of UK’s scheduled exit on March 29

Brexit still in shadows

British Prime Minister Theresa May has embarked on a fresh round of talks with leaders at home and in Europe, after winning a two-week respite on Tuesday when MPs voted 317 to 301 – allowing her to renegotiate her Brexit deal for replacing the backstop element, which is designed as an insurance policy to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and British Northern Ireland.

With her hands tied by Parliament, she now approaches EU leaders, most of who are in no mood to change or even tweak the current version of the Brexit deal. But, undeterred by the daunting challenge, May is going to give her best shot even as industry leaders at home are set to speed up their preparations for a no-deal Brexit. "The amendment (vote to renegotiate the deal) feels like a real throw of the dice," said an industry chief.

The prime minister, who feels her authority more enhanced by the parliamentary vote, hopes to have a better reception and hearing in EU than she has had so far, while her position was being challenged daily at home. However, various EU leaders have suggested that there will be no revisions to the deal, with European Council President Donald Tusk saying: "The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation." Tusk, though, left a window slightly open by saying that EU would be willing to consider any "reasoned request" for an extension to the leave date of March 29.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that the agreement was "not renegotiable", while Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney has said that the backstop arrangement remained "necessary" despite the British vote.

Britain's former first secretary of state, Damian Green, said that the vote would "narrow down" talks with EU. "Let's have some intense negotiation, on that spot. Just as inside the Conservative Party people have had to compromise, Brussels will have to compromise," he hoped.

Former Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "EU themselves said: 'Tell us what you want'. We're going back. The prime minister's hand is strengthened – with some discreet, focused and eminently reasonable changes to the backstop." He insisted that changes to the deal could be made, adding: "The question isn't whether the EU can do it, it's whether they want to do it – the ball is squarely in their court."

May is hoping that the support for Sir Graham Brady's amendment to look at alternatives to the backstop gives her a stronger negotiating position with EU. The Brady move envisages a Brexit delay by one year and the protection of rights of EU citizens in Britain.

The controversial element of the PM's original plan is the insurance policy to prevent checks on goods and people returning to the Northern Ireland border. It would effectively keep the UK inside the EU's customs union, but with Northern Ireland also conforming to some rules of the single market. It was one of the main reasons behind May's Brexit deal being voted down in Parliament by a historic margin, earlier in January, as critics say a different status for Northern Ireland could threaten the existence of the UK and also fear that the backstop could become permanent.

Tuesday's vote, May claimed, showed that there was now a "substantial and sustainable" majority of MPs supporting leaving EU with a deal, but admitted renegotiation "will not be easy".

Whatever the claim by any side, the nation remains divided. Even families are divided. For instance, prime ministerial hopeful Boris Johnson is a hard Brexiter, while his younger brother and father are Remainers. May herself was a Remainer but turned Leaver when she saw her chance of becoming prime minister. And the one who got away with it all is former prime minister David Cameron, who led the nation on the road to a referendum in 2016. He lost the gamble and left the scene, paving the way for May to grab the prize. Cameron, essentially a public relations man, had convinced himself that he could easily win the referendum. That is the nature of most PR people, who think that convincing themselves is half the battle won. They often forget that the other half and land, their followers, in this case, the nation, is a mega mess for someone else to clear.

May chose to grab the crown of thorns; but, she has no regrets. Her spokesman dutifully said this week that she would "engage" with colleagues proposing a compromise, but would also look at other options – including putting a time limit on the backstop and seeking a way to exit it. The PM with her revised deal will return to the Commons for a vote. And, if no new deal is agreed by Parliament by February 13, she will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day.

The UK is set to leave the European Union on March 29, with a 20-month transition period, if the deal goes through.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Subhash Chopra

Subhash Chopra

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