PM announces new committee of senior Tories to probe ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish border post-Brexit
Theresa May has been accused of “wasting valuable time” in the countdown to Britain’s exit from the EU as she announced plans to establish a Commons group probing alternative plans for the Irish border post-Brexit.
Despite the prime minister’s hopes of reopening the withdrawal agreement already being dashed by EU leaders with just 53 days to go until Brexit, the new committee made up of senior Tory MPs will meet for the first time on Monday.
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay is expected to attend the sessions, alongside support from officials at HM Revenue and Customs, the Cabinet Office, and No 10.
The group will aim to provide “alternative arrangements” to the backstop – the EU’s insurance policy in the withdrawal agreement that aims to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Membership of the committee will include hardline Brexiteers Steve Baker, Owen Paterson, and Marcus Fysh – alongside the senior Conservative Nicky Morgan and Theresa May’s former deputy, Damian Green.
They will meet in the Cabinet Office on Monday, with further sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, while the attorney general Geoffrey Cox looks at legal changes to the backstop the government hopes to achieve.
But the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, has already dismissed using existing technology as an alternative solution to the question of the Irish border. “We looked at every border on this Earth, every border the EU has with a third country – there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls,” she said last week.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney also rubbished the idea of “alternative arrangements”, adding in The Sunday Times: “This is not a new concept. The EU is committed to trying to agree alternative arrangements to replace the backstop. We want a comprehensive future relationship in place by the end of 2020 so the backstop is never used.
“We want to get on with the work once the withdrawal agreement is ratified. Yet there are no credible alternative arrangements, put forward by anyone, that achieve the shared goal of the UK and EU to avoid a hard border. The backstop is a necessary guarantee, based on legal certainty, not just wishful thinking.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP and supporter of the pro-EU group Best for Britain accused the prime minister of a “preposterous waste of time” over the new working group.
“It shows what situation the Conservative Party have got themselves into,” he said. “All the MPs involved know this plan is dead on arrival with EU leaders but yet are wasting valuable time and effort on this hare-brained scheme.”
He added: “The government is in dire straits if it is creating a committee like this with only weeks till Brexit.”
In a Sunday Telegraph article, Ms May wrote that she will return to Brussels “armed with a fresh mandate, news ideas and a renewed determination to agree a pragmatic solution that delivers the Brexit the British people voted for”.
But cracks appear to have emerged in the fragile Tory truce after Mr Baker, who is deputy chairman of the influential European Research Group (ERG), suggested the prime minister was seeking something that was no more than a “codicil” (an addition or amendment) instead of getting the EU to reopen the withdrawal agreement.
He tweeted in response to Ms May’s article, in which she stated that she would seek an alternative, or time-limiting changes, to the Irish border backstop.
“Trouble ahead,” he said. “Leave-backing MPs voted to support alternative arrangements in NI but with grave misgivings about the whole agreement.
“Now the PM co-opts us into accepting everything but the backstop and, on the backstop, accepting a codicil.
“If all we see is a codicil – a ‘joint interpretive instrument’ – expect a further substantial defeat for the agreement.”