Theresa May has been warned by Tory Eurosceptics not to take them for granted as she prepares to return to Brussels this week with “new ideas” intended to secure eleventh-hour changes to Britain’s exit deal.
Mrs May has asked Stephen Barclay, Brexit secretary, to come up with “alternative proposals” to the Irish backstop, which aims to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by setting up a temporary EU/UK customs union.
Mr Barclay will chair a new working group comprising Eurosceptics Steve Baker, Marcus Fysh and Owen Paterson and pro-Europeans Damian Green and Nicky Morgan, to try to identify alternative ways of maintaining an open border in Ireland.
Meanwhile Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, has been asked to come up with ideas for a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop or a time limit, and to advise MPs on the legal status of his proposals.
However, Brussels has already warned that technology-based alternatives to the backstop consist of “magical thinking” — Mrs May has previously admitted they do not yet exist — and has ruled out any reopening of Britain’s draft exit treaty.
Tory MPs in the pro-Brexit European Research Group are suspicious of Mrs May’s new diplomatic initiative, fearing that she will hit a brick wall in Brussels and will be fobbed off with words of reassurance rather than a reopening of the treaty.
Mr Baker, a former Brexit minister, said on Sunday warned of “trouble ahead” and that while Eurosceptic MPs voted last week to support alternative arrangements to the backstop, they had “grave misgivings about the whole agreement”.
Mr Baker’s comments have already been noted in Brussels, where diplomats suspect that, even if they were to meet Mrs May’s demands on the backstop, Conservative Brexiters would demand more.
The prime minister has interpreted last week’s Commons votes on an amendment tabled by Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady as a sign the ERG would ratify her exit deal if she resolved the issue of the backstop.
Mr Baker suggested Mrs May was reading too much into the vote and warned her that the ERG would expect more than a legal codicil — an explanatory note setting out what both sides mean when they say the backstop will be temporary.
“Now the PM co-opts us into accepting everything but the backstop, and on the backstop accepting a codicil,” Mr Baker said. Hardline Eurosceptics, including ERG leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, want the backstop to be removed altogether.
Aides to Mrs May, who is expected to return to Brussels this week for more Brexit talks, said the prime minister had made it clear she was willing to try to reopen the treaty.
Separately Sajid Javid, home secretary, suggested Britain would be less safe if it left the EU without a deal on March 29 because it would lose access to EU crime-fighting databases. Mr Javid, a Tory leadership hopeful who is courting Eurosceptic MP, backed Brexiters who claim that technological solutions were available for the Irish border. “The only thing that’s missing is a bit of goodwill on the EU side,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.
Downing Street and Buckingham Palace have refused to comment on a report in the Sunday Times that the Queen could be moved to a safer location outside London if there were riots in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Tory Eurosceptic MPs denounced the plans, which were originally intended for use in the event of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, as another variant of Project Fear.