As May Struggles for a Deal, Here’s How Far She’s Compromised

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is trying to get her Brexit deal rewritten in Brussels to make it acceptable to Parliament. Since her deal was defeated by a massive 230 votes on Jan 15, May has made a succession of compromises, yet has still not nailed down a text she can sell to the House of Commons.

The biggest problem for many members of Parliament is the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border, which the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox says could trap Britain inside EU trade rules indefinitely. But -- unlike the British side -- the EU is showing no signs of backing down.

These are the concessions May has made so far:

Jan. 28: Faced with another huge Tory rebellion, May agrees to support senior Tory Graham Brady’s plan to rip up her Brexit deal and scrap the Irish border backstop. The backstop must be replaced with alternative arrangements for ensuring there’s no hard border between the U.K. and Ireland.

Jan. 29: May agrees to engage with the Malthouse Compromise -- which sets out the kind of alternative arrangements that could apply at the border. The Commons votes to back the Brady plan, which May welcomes as a clear sign that Parliament has now finally said what it wants from a revised exit deal.

Feb. 5: May backs away from the Brady plan, saying she only wants to change the backstop, not scrap it. “I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future,” May said on a visit to Belfast. “What Parliament has said is that there should be changes made to the backstop.”

Feb. 12: May suggests there are three ways to get the changes Parliament wants:

  • “First, the backstop could be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” she tells Parliament.
  • “Second, there could be a legally binding time limit to the existing backstop.”
  • “Or third, there could be a legally binding unilateral exit clause" to the backstop. “Given both sides agree we do not ever want to use the backstop, and that if we did it would be temporary, we believe it is reasonable to ask for legally binding changes to this effect.”

Feb. 20: U.K. officials conclude the Malthouse Compromise, relying on alternative arrangements such as the use of technology to avoid a hard border, is no longer a serious contender for resolving the dispute. May later says the Malthouse plan can be looked at in the future, but requires too much work to take forward now.

Feb. 24: On a trip to Egypt, May delays a planned vote on her deal, promising to hold it by March 12 at the latest.

March 4: The Daily Telegraph reports that May has abandoned her call for a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism. Officials don’t deny this.

One official says the U.K. is now hoping to find a way for the U.K. to leave the backstop, if trade talks with the EU on a permanent future relationship irretrievably break down. There’s no mention of a time limit, or an unrestricted right for Britain to leave the backstop when it chooses to do so.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.