May Faces Collision With Pro-Brexit Tories Over Irish Border

(Bloomberg) -- British Prime Minister Theresa May risked enraging members of her Conservative Party by insisting she wants to keep the most contentious part of her Brexit plan for avoiding a hard border with Ireland.

By saying she would not push people to accept a divorce from the European Union that strips out a guarantee to keep the Irish border open for goods trade, the premier wanted to reassure a local audience in Northern Ireland that they won’t see a return to checkpoints at the land frontier.

But May’s comments also suggest her focus is on asking the EU for something it might agree to. By setting a low bar for renegotiating, May would increase her chances of getting changes from Brussels. The risk is that she alienates the politicians whose support she needs to get a deal through Parliament in London.

“I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future,” May said in Belfast on Tuesday. “What Parliament has said is that there should be changes made to the backstop.”

In fact, Parliament did not call for changes to the backstop, but rather for the entire policy to be abolished. On Jan. 29, the House of Commons voted to replace it with “alternative arrangements” in the withdrawal agreement as a way to avert a hard border.

A group of Tories have proposed using new technology systems to avoid the need for any backstop guarantee in the exit deal, but May sounded cool about that idea, too.

May’s visit to Northern Ireland comes ahead of a trip to Brussels Thursday where she’ll meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk to discuss a way forward. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Tuesday that he noted a “growing desire” among EU leaders to avoid a no-deal outcome. “Nobody wants to be in the situation whereby we as Europe fail to find solutions,” he told lawmakers in Dublin.

Angela Merkel has also said leaders need to be “creative.”

Unpopular Backstop

Pro-Brexit Tories hate the backstop because it ties the U.K. into the EU customs union, potentially forever. The intention behind the plan is to ensure that the border remains free of customs checks even if no new overarching trade deal is ready by the end of the post-Brexit transition period in Dec. 2020.

For many euroskeptic Tories, the backstop defeats the point of Brexit because it will stop Britain being free to determine its own trade regime and strike new deals with other countries around the world.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority Conservative administration, also opposes the current backstop because it sets up new barriers to trade between Northern Ireland, parts of which the DUP represents, and the British mainland.

Still, the party has left itself room for maneuver, with leader Arlene Foster merely calling for the backstop to be “dealt with,” without specifying what that would mean.

In a statement after the prime minister’s speech, DUP lawmaker Emma-Little Pengelly said the party wanted “legally binding changes,” which means it could be satisfied with something short of a complete removal.

May has set herself a deadline of Feb. 13 to negotiate a reformed deal with the EU that has a chance of passing in a vote in the Commons. If she fails, members of Parliament will propose their own Plan B options on Feb. 14, including one that’s expected to prepare the ground to delay Brexit.

The U.K. is due to exit the EU on March 29, with or without a deal.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.