Iain Dale: Replace Hammond with Gove, promote Mordaunt, bring back Raab

Plus: Snubbed by a Remainer. Delighted for Beth Rigby. Tusk japes, May spooks, Francois almost self-combusts. And: is Brexit Brecksit or Breggsit?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

I spent much of Monday afternoon in the Commons catching up with a few MPs. Ok, Ok – it was a massive gossip session. Very useful for getting some background info on what the next Brexit developments are likely to be.

I did have one rather disconcerting experience, though. I was walking past the tables reserved for MPs when I spied one who I have known for years and always enjoyed sharing a few words with.

The MP looked up, I smiled in acknowledgement and went to start a conversation, but the MP immediately looked down at their phone without any sign of acknowledgement at all. I was officially blanked.

I’m sure the fact that this MP is the archest of arch-remainers and no doubt sees me as the Brexit-supporting enemy had nothing to do with it…what a state of affairs.

– – – – – – – – – –

Like many in Westminster, I was delighted to hear that Beth Rigby has been appointed to succeed Faisal Islam as political editor of Sky News. She’s a brilliant story-getter and has adapted to a broadcast role incredibly quickly, having been a print journalist for many years.

She won’t be starting her new job until May because, I gather, Islam is on a very long notice period which Sky News has decided to enforce. She beat off a lot of competition for the role, including two very well-known names in political journalism. I think she’ll be excellent in the role.

– – – – – – – – – –

At some point in the not-too-distant future everyone in the political media is going to start to obsess about the date on which Theresa May will announce she’s quitting.

So let me get ahead of the pack. I have always thought that she would go fairly soon after we (ostensibly) leave the EU on March 29th. But since Conservative backbenchers can’t now force her departure until the end of the year, it’s highly possible that she many stay on quite a bit longer than that.

One senior Tory told me he expects herr to announce her departure at this year’s Party conference, with the leadership contest concluding in January 2020. It’s a reasonable prediction but, if that is truly the plan, may I suggest that in early April she conducts a Cabinet reshuffle to enable all the potential contenders to test themselves properly?

This would entail Penny Mordaunt being given a big department, Philip Hammond being replaced by Michael Gove and Dominic Raab being brought back into the Cabinet. That last one might be a stretch, but the Party needs to be given a wide choice of candidates. I could argue the same thing about Boris Johnson, but it’s difficult to see how he could be brought back in any position which he would accept.

– – – – – – – – – –

Why do some people pronounce Brexit as ‘Brecksit’ and others ‘Breggsit’? I’m in the former camp, but there seems to be no rhyme nor reason as to which camp someone falls into. Any explanation?

– – – – – – – – – –

I doubt whether anyone believes that the prospects of a deal with the EU in advance of March 29th have been enhanced this week. Donald Tusk’s merry little jape on Wednesday was clearly calculated to spook Theresa May on the day before she arrived for several hours of apparently fruitless talks with the Commission.

Despite pressure from several member states, the Commission shows now sign of budging on the backstop and, if that continues, I can see no way for anything to pass through the Commons.

ERGers were also spooked by May’s words in Belfast, where she said that she is trying to amend the backstop rather than abolish it altogether. Cue Mark Francois almost self-combusting. As of today, there are 48 days to go until we are supposed to formally leave the EU. The odds on that happening reduce by the day. Just as Brussels has planned…

James Bundy: A Department for the Union would strengthen our United Kingdom

It would be responsible for promoting the British brand right across the country – and there is a lot to promote.

James Bundy is a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the national chairman of Conservative Future Scotland, and the former chairman of the St. Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association.

Our proud Union has been the envy of the world for over 300 years. Our monarchy, our courts, our universities and our parliamentary democracy are known as some of the finest institutions the world has ever produced. Our Union, however, is under grave threat. Scottish nationalists are doing their utmost to tear away the fabrics that bring our union together. Northern Ireland feels like it is slowly moving into the hands of reunification with the 26 counties of the Republic. Poor Wales is never mentioned in the national media unless its sports teams are doing well. The debate surrounding our departure of the European Union has brought an emergence of English nationalism which would shamefully break up our United Kingdom if it ensured a clean break from Brussels.

As Conservatives and Unionists, we must do all we can to protect, defend and strengthen our United Kingdom. We must recognise the greatest threat to our Union and do all that we can to respond to it. A patriotic campaign which promotes British culture is required, but we must also come up with practical solutions to ensure that our Union is suitable for the future. The creation of the Department for the Union in Whitehall – first advocated by the MP for Stirling, Stephen Kerr – is an approach which fulfils both these requirements.

Leaving the European Union is the greatest threat to our Union today, but our departure will also save our United Kingdom in the long-term. This sounds like a contradictory statement, but it is not. Membership of the European Union has saw our Union slowly drift apart and this would have continued if we decided to remain. British culture has been evaporating bit by bit and has been replaced by a European culture which embraces secularism and republicanism. The drastic drop in those who believe in Christianity, the decline of Christian moral values and the growing calls for a future republic all demonstrate this culturally change.

Without our wonderful and unique British culture, the United Kingdom would stand for very little, if not nothing. Our Union, which used to be the envy of the world, would be known as simply another European country. Pride in being British would diminish much further and people would desperately seek identity of any sorts – be it Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Mancunian, Scouse and so on. An environment like this would have played right into the hands of the nationalist movements. Our decision to leave the European Union brings an opportunity to halt the dilution of our culture, creating a level playing field in the long-term battle of identity. This battle is one we must win to preserve our United Kingdom.

After we leave the European Union, we may end up in a scenario whereby European standards are not the minimum standards. The SNP have already cried ‘power grab’ when the UK Government announced plans to maintain common standards in fishing and farming across our United Kingdom. The terminology ‘power grab’ is absurd, as these powers lay in Brussels – not Holyrood – but it does highlight that there is potential for a constitutional crisis. Some Unionists have argued that this is why we must remain members of the European Union, but no country should rely on an international organisation to maintain its internal market. Rather than hide and wish the problems go away, we must confront the challenges that are before us and do so convincingly.

A Department for the Union would allow the Government to address both the cultural and constitutional aspects of our United Kingdom. The department would be responsible for promoting the British brand across the country – and there is a lot to promote. A permanent member of the UN Security Council, being of the sixth largest economy in the world, the second biggest military budget in NATO, membership of the Commonwealth, a country that meets the UN’s aid spending target, and an arts and sporting sector which pushes above its weight, to name a few. The new department would be responsible for cross-Governmental cooperation between Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and our Overseas Territories. Protecting our internal market and ensuring that all parts of our United Kingdom work together post-Brexit rather than against each other.

As Unionists, we must do all that we can do to make people feel proud to be British. As Conservatives, we must do all that we can do to ensure that our United Kingdom functions properly. Our departure of the European Union was a cry from the British people for national renewal. As Conservatives and Unionists, let’s deliver this national renewal by creating the Department for the Union.

The Malthouse Compromise – an official explainer in full

We have received full details of the plan and offer it without comment for the interest of our readers.

ConservativeHome has received an official explainer of the Malthouse Compromise, and offers it without comment for the interest of our readers.

The Malthouse Compromise

Parliament may shortly face a binary choice over leaving the European Union with an agreed Withdrawal Agreement (WA) or without one.

Many MPs find the WA in its current form unacceptable. Indeed the Commons have rejected it by a large majority. Others find the possible economic and logistical disruption of an exit without any WA equally troubling.

For too long the Brexit debate and negotiations have been stymied by a collective gamble over this choice. Each side of a naturally binary debate – Leave/Remain – was manoeuvering around this fallback arrangement in the event of the WA’s failing, to the extent that the WA itself was being neglected and consensus could not emerge about what it should and should not contain.

Our intention therefore was to create a degree of optionality to mitigate the binary quality of that choice – and to do so in a way in which those on both sides could accept a package as a whole that sought to address their concerns. The idea is that each side will find in the package proposals that they might not consider ideal but will find acceptable.

In this way we hope a consensus will emerge across the House and that we can have an eminently reasonable set of options to present to our EU partners which could command a majority – something the EU have quite rightly been asking to see for some time.

The structure of the compromise is to offer the EU a choice of two plans: Plan A is predicated on achieving agreement on a WA that addresses the principal weakness of the current version, the perpetual character of the Irish backstop, and its consequences for the Future Relationship between the UK and the EU. Plan B assumes that agreement on a WA is not possible and that both sides accept a responsibility to act so as to minimize as far as possible the disruption that might arise to people and businesses in the EU and the UK.

Both Plan A and Plan B involve the UK’s ceasing to be a Member State of the EU according to the timetable set by Article 50 of the treaties, that is on 29th March 2019.

In order therefore –

Plan A – “The Deal”:

Essentially we would offer the existing WA with two changes:

First we would extend the implementation period until no later than December 2021. This would involve more money, but also provide a longer period to agree the Future Relationship (FR), with an immovable deadline to act as an incentive for talks.

Second, to address the backstop, we recognize the legitimate concern on both sides of the border on the island of Ireland about the effects of Brexit on the settled border arrangements, and the profound commitment of all parties to the Belfast Agreement. However, it is clear that the current formulation of the backstop is not acceptable to the Commons, and some of the suggested solutions to this problem essentially mean the backstop isn’t a backstop at all. We therefore propose a different basis for the backstop that is capable of being permanent. In essence the nature of the new backstop is a basic free trade agreement and a brief is attached at Appendix 1. It is important to note that the NI border arrangement requires no new technology and relies on existing administrative processes.

All else in the WA remains the same, including, very importantly a guarantee of EU and British citizens’ rights.

If this is not acceptable to the EU, or they require more time to consider it, we would propose our Plan B –

Plan B

Plan B essentially creates a transitional standstill period, at the end of which the UK would overnight become a third country in practice but during which we would have time to avoid disruption in a number of ways:

  1. We would keep plan A on offer for as long as the EU was willing to consider it,
  2. We would offer to pay our net contribution(c.£10bnpa)in exchange for the Implementation Period as negotiated, until no later than Dec 2021, as a standstill period,
  3. We would also offer legal text to support a GATT ArtXXIV “zerofor zero” temporary arrangement for execution either at the start of the standstill in the event the negotiated implementation period could not be secured, or at the end of the standstill if the future relationship had not been concluded (more here).
  4. Both sides would prepare for WTO terms fully.
  5. We would create an opportunity to discuss our future relationship with the EU as it would apply from the end of the standstill period.

This transitional period would last until the end of December 2021, during which time we would pay our net EU budget contribution, and cover our other liabilities subject to arbitration (pensions etc), and we would “stand still” on everything else – so we would remain a member of the customs union and single market, and the various other arrangements to do with security, aviation and so on. Again very importantly we would unilaterally guarantee EU citizens’ rights.

In essence this structure throws a safety net around “No Deal” diffusing the drama and mitigating the possible damage on both sides, with plenty of time allowed to agree a future relationship, which is the desired outcome for everyone. It also allows other non-EU countries to see that the UK has proposed something eminently reasonable which protects our supply chains.

If this structure of two deals is offered to the EU, we would expect it to receive serious consideration by those concerned to achieve a resolution that works for both the UK and EU. Plan A is reasonable and workable and addresses the legitimate concerns about the Irish border. Plan B provides a transitional period in which we can settle remaining differences without unnecessary economic damage or logistical difficulties, retaining optionality for all sides. In both cases there is no prejudging of the form of the FR. Maintenance of the Common Travel Area on the island of Ireland is also an important part of both plans.

The only other option is slamming the door, which would seem irrational and unfair given that the EU have pledged to use best endeavours to agree a smooth and civilized exit. On this basis, given the widespread support for this compromise, and the demonstrated majority for it, we would welcome the opportunity to develop it further with the Prime Minister such that it could be offered to our EU allies as a profoundly reasonable solution.

Appendix 1: The New Backstop

  • A revised Withdrawal Agreement (WA) which can be negotiated with the EU, thus avoiding No Deal and honouring the referendum result, whilst protecting the national interest.
  • Our proposed new backstop would guarantee departure from the Customs Union, Single Market and all EU rule-making for the entire UK.
  • It can be negotiated because it builds on the EU’s own offer (rather than asking them to compromise the single market) and the concept has already been positively received by the EU privately (they will not publicly back it whilst a permanent customs union is on the table).
  • It retains the vast majority of the draft WA but crucially removes the four poison pills that have prevented the draft WA from finding widespread support in Parliament and the country at large.
  • One of the reasons that Parliament is hostile to the Prime Minister’s current proposal is that it would place the UK in a “single customs territory” by virtue of the backstop, giving the EU no incentive to make concessions in future trade negotiations (thereby putting UK interests such as fishing at great risk). It should be noted that any single customs territory that is not the full Customs Union will require checks and customs certificates, such as Turkey is required to use.
  • This alternative WA proposes a new Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with zero tariffs and no quantitative import restrictions, and a Customs and Trade Facilitation Chapter that will deploy advanced customs and trade facilitation measures which include specific solutions for the Irish border, so the leverage would be the same on both sides. It also addresses the non-regression clauses so as to make them two-way and of the language that would be used in any trade agreement, allowing any potential end state arrangement.
  • The new backstop does not imperil the Union as it represents a permanent solution to the Northern Ireland / Ireland border making it both a backstop and a frontstop. It does not require any differences between NI and GB beyond those that exist today.
  • The new backstop will include a Free Trade Agreement in Goods, a Customs and Trade Facilitation Chapter, as well as: commitment by all parties not to place infrastructure on the Northern Ireland border; the UK adopting EU rules of origin; regulatory recognition such as in sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures; in facility and inland clearance; and level playing field provisions on areas such as labour – in other words normal practice in FTAs.
  • This reformed WA is likely to command a majority in the House of Commons – it is already supported by both leave-backing and remain-backing MPs and, crucially, the DUP.

The main changes to Withdrawal Agreement

1. No “single customs territory” between the UK and the EU, allowing the UK to regain control over its tariffs and regulations which are required to carry out negotiations for trade agreements with other countries. This makes the UK a credible trade partner for third countries after 29th March 2019.

2. A new backstop to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol which is based on what the permanent solution to the Irish border should be. This maintains the territorial integrity of the UK and allows the UK to regain control over its tariffs and regulation. Crucially to address the concerns of the Republic of Ireland, this arrangement is capable of being permanent – a frontstop – It includes:

  • A free trade agreement in goods: zero tariffs and no quantitative restrictions, providing for tariff-free trade in goods plus UK-EU regulatory cooperation.
  • No infrastructure on the Irish border: a commitment by all parties not to place infrastructure on the border.
  • Regulatory recognition based on deemed equivalence because we will be identical on day one of Brexit: on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) and animal health measures and mutual recognition of conformity assessment, with measures to ensure that the animal health and disease control zone on the island of Ireland can be maintained.
  • Level playing field provisions: on labour, the environment, competition and state aid, consistent with normal practice in FTAs, as opposed to the highly one-sided commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement.
  • A Customs and Trade Facilitation Chapter with an Irish border protocol: an agreement to deploy advanced customs and trade facilitation measures, including specific solutions for the Irish border.

This will allow us to use a range of proven solutions for our customs procedures, while reducing the burden of formalities on traders and avoiding congestion at ports, and include the principle that any necessary formalities and inspections are carried out with the minimum of delay and, to the maximum extent possible, away from the border. This will employ:

  • Inter-agency cooperation and information sharing, and recognition of the other party’s inspections and documents for certification of conformity with country or import or export
  • Simplified procedures and data processing at departure and destination for the import, export and transit of goods
  • Expedited procedures for qualifying operators, with mutual recognition of trusted trader schemes like authorised economic operator (AEO) programmes, and making them available to as many traders as possible
  • Self-assessment for importers to declare imports periodically and account for duties payable, plus support to encourage uptake.
  • Inland, in-facility checks and participating in EU systems (such as TRACES) so all SPS related goods will be registered with these systems.
  • Inland, in-facility checks for small businesses (who are already filling out VAT forms).
  • Adherence to international standards of the WTO and other appropriate bodies
  • Special facilitations for specific sectors like agriculture.

3. We would propose an extenstion of the Implementation Period to 31 December 2021, but no further.

The EU doesn’t understand – or claims not to understand – the way our country works

Our Government alone isn’t entitled to finalise a deal. It must have Parliamentary endorsement. And this Commons rejected the deal by a record margin.

There seems to be a misunderstanding in parts of the EU about how the British constitution works.  The claim is that the Government is now seeking to alter a deal which it has agreed.  This is correct as far as it goes.

But governments are not entitled simply to agree such deals without Parliamentary approval.  That is why the Lisbon Treaty, for example, was subject to a Bill, back in Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister.  And why this Government, similarly, will need an EU Withdrawal Bill to pass Parliament in the event of a deal being approved by the Commons in principle.

The EU ought to see the point at once – because it has very similar arrangements.  So it came about that Wallonia was able to hold up the EU’s trade deal with Canada.  Jean Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier are not automatically entitled to agree anything they like without the endorsement of member states.

A more subtle argument from the EU side is that it was wrong for Theresa May to whip Conservative MPs against her own deal.  Perhaps – but in that case, the EU has to drop the argument that “Britain must sort this mess out”, and “we don’t know what Britain wants”.

Whatever you think of her leadership of the British side of the negotiation, the Prime Minister was indeed trying to sort this mess out.  The deal was rejected by MPs only a fortnight ago – enduring the biggest Government defeat and Tory backbench revolt in modern history.  By whipping for the Brady amendment, she helped to enable the Commons to vote for something, even if the EU doesn’t like it.

Furthermore, it is no longer the case that the EU doesn’t know what Britain wants – or at least what the Commons wants.  It wants an end to the backstop.  That is almost certainly not negotiable.  But a time limit or a unilateral right to withdraw just might be.  And even if neither is, the point remains: the EU now knows what the Commons wants.

This site believes that an extension to Article 50 is now likely.  But it doesn’t follow that if there is an extension there will necessarily be revocation.  For when extension ends, No Deal will still be “on the table”, unless the legislation enabling Brexit has been revoked.

So the EU side of the table faces its own “cliff edge”.  We are told that the backstop is essential to avoid a harder border in Northern Ireland.  But if it falls, there will be exactly such a harder border – because the EU will ultimately not allow an unregulated flow of goods from the UK across a land border into its internal market.  They know it, we know it, and Leo Varadkar knows it.

So all concerned need a way out. Fortunately, the text of the deal itself points to one.  It says that the backstop will apply “unless and until an alternative arrangement implementing another scenario is found”.  The EU is absolutely within its rights to misread the way the British constitution works, and to insist on keeping the backstop.  But if it wants a way out of the impasse, it knows what to do.

Henry Newman and Guglielmo Verdirame: It’s unlikely the backstop will be scrapped. But supplementing it can win what we want.

Even if the Exchange of Letters were viewed as just short of a treaty (i.e. a Memorandum of Understanding or Joint Interpretative Declaration), it would be far from legally worthless.

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe. Guglielmo Verdirame is Professor of International Law at King’s College London and practises at 20 Essex Street Chambers.

Last week, the EU managed to undermine its own position by arguing first that there would be a hard border in the event of No Deal and then that there would not be one – thus calling into question why the backstop is required in the first place. Recent comments by European figures, including Jacek Czaputowicz, Poland’s Foreign Minister, suggested a growing realisation that it would be ironic if a deal couldn’t be reached between the UK and EU, risking a harder border with Ireland, precisely because of a policy intended to avoid the need for such a hard border. Yet rather than sending the Prime Minister back to Brussels with a clear mandate to seek changes to the backstop, MPs risk giving a confused message in this evening’s votes.

Yesterday, ERG supporters denounced an amendment put forward by the 1922 Committee Chairman, Graham Brady, which would require the backstop to be replaced. There are now reports that agreement has been reached between backbenchers on possible alternative arrangements (‘the Malthouse Plan’), but it’s unclear why the EU would support these. Replacing the entire backstop is something the EU is unlikely to ever accept.

What can realistically be achieved? Although the backstop has various problems, the biggest is the weakness of its exit mechanism.  The Government must improve this. Policy Exchange argued in a report in December and a paper today that the UK must reserve its rights to leave the backstop, under the Vienna Convention on the Laws of Treaties, if the EU did not meet its commitment to use “best endeavours” to find alternative solutions.

The UK also needs clarity over what alternative solutions could replace the backstop. This is because of the European Commission’s recent insistence that a “subsequent agreement … would ensure the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing [our italics]”, and because the EU has so far indicated that there are no alternatives to the backstop, besides full membership of both the Single Market and a Customs Union, or a reversion to a Northern Ireland-only backstop with an Irish Sea customs border. It would not be a good faith interpretation of the EU’s commitment to find a subsequent agreemen were the only subsequent agreement to be substantively identical to the backstop. Nor would it be reasonable to refuse the UK any future relationship which had a unilateral right of withdrawal. It cannot be the case that the only way to replace the backstop is with a treaty with its own backstop.

Some MPs are demanding a time limit on the backstop (something Theresa May was denied at the December European Council). However, a short time limit could create a cliff edge, working to the UK’s disadvantage. As Open Europe has suggested, it could “add unnecessary time pressure to the negotiations on the future relationship.” So a clearer mechanism allowing the UK to leave the backstop, if the EU fails to negotiate in good faith on a future relationship, is preferable, not least because – as Paul Bew and others have argued – the backstop itself risks undermining the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Writing in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson demanded what he called a “Freedom Clause”, saying it should be “either a sunset clause or a mechanism for the UK to escape without reference to the EU” and that “this means reopening the text of the Treaty itself”. But re-opening the text isn’t the only answer, nor necessarily the best.

The Withdrawal Agreement already has plenty of what could be called constructive ambiguity. Article 1 (4) states that the Backstop is “intended to apply only temporarily” and that the “objective … is not to establish a permanent relationship”). However, it also continues to say, “this Protocol shall apply unless and until they are superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement”. Although it might be helpful to tidy all this up with changes to the text itself, that might be a tall order, when the withdrawal agreement, warts and all, has been signed off by all EU leaders.

A subsequent and more specific agreement with the EU clarifying things could be preferable to amending the existing treaty. In the event of a conflict between the two texts, the later and more specific one would prevail. And although some have dismissed the Exchange of Letters earlier this month between the UK and EU as legally “worthless”, they are incorrect. In international law, exchanges of letters or notes can be considered a treaty – see for example the 1940 and 1941 Land-Lease Agreements with the US. Even if the Exchange of Letters were to be viewed as just short of a treaty (i.e. as a Memorandum of Understanding or a Joint Interpretative Declaration), it would be far from legally worthless. It would be very difficult for the UK, the EU, or any tribunal, to proceed on the basis of an interpretation that is contrary to what was set out in that Exchange.

At this stage, an unfettered unilateral right of withdrawal may not be realistic. To address the exit from the backstop and what could replace it, the UK may need a further (and more robust) exchange of letters with the EU. International law does not have the same formal rigidity as domestic law, and MPs should be careful not to close the door to solutions that are politically achievable and legally viable. It is, in practice, possible to develop the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop with a subsequent treaty – in the form of an exchange of letters or (as suggested by others) a protocol or “codicil”. But the UK is more likely to achieve a compromise, than a clear-cut exit clause. That would make the end-point one of “sub-optimal mutual reassurance”. Both sides would know that in a scenario where no progress is made on a replacement agreement, each would have an arguable case against the other.

But to stand a chance of getting further clarifications, the Prime Minister will need to persuade Brussels and member states that she will actually be able to convince her critics to back her amended agreement. That’s difficult when MPs, such as Marcus Fysh declare that even securing a time limit to the backstop “isn’t enough”. As long as the EU believes any concession will be in vain, they are unlikely to offer anything further. MPs have a key opportunity to send a message to the EU that there will have to be changes to the backstop – they should support the Brady amendment.

Unless pro-Leave MPs back the Brady plan today, they risk ending up with no Brexit at all

The Prime Minister doesn’t need to endorse every dot and comma of it. But she does need to show the EU that the Commons and her Party can agree on something.

The least bad outcome of today’s Commons votes is that European Research Group members, and other Brexiteer MPs, vote for the amendment about which Graham Brady writes on this site this morning (assuming that the Speaker selects it).

They may be right to object that adding a codicil in addition to the backstop, rather than simply scrapping the latter, would not provide the legal certainty required to guarantee an end to its effects.  By floating the prospect of a codicil, Sir Graham thereby alienated some pro-Leave Tory MPs without necessarily persuading some pro-Remain ones.

But Theresa May doesn’t want to present the EU with the Brady proposal word for word.  What she is aiming to do is to show it that the Commons isn’t opposed to everything, but can agree on something – and that at the core of that something is the removal of the backstop as it stands.  Hence her decision to whip in favour of the Brady amendment – a late decision, but better late than never.

The new Malthouse compromise, agreed on by Conservative Soft and Hard Brexiteers alike, could then supplement the Brady proposal: in a nutshell, this seeks to replace the present backstop with a different one, which would either allow a “smooth transition” to a deal or put in place a “triple safety net” if there is no deal.

Or else the Prime Minister could try the Bew plan, which may be more realistic.  Either way, neither the EU nor the Irish Government will be willing, surely, to drop the idea of a backstop entirely.  But replacing it, as the Malthouse idea proposes, or ameliorating and time-limiting it and, as Bew suggests, may be a different matter – especially since Michel Barnier has now let the unicorn out of the bag over maxfac.

If the Brady amendment is not carried, the following sequence of events is almost certain.  Remainers and Soft Brexiteers in the Government and Commons will say that May tried to take the ERG with her, and failed; that the only option left for her is to go with them; and that this means extending Article 50, doing a deal with Labour MPs, and then accepting either Norway Plus or a second referendum.

A further weakened Prime Minister would no longer be in a position to resist.  The power pendulum within the Government would swing back to David Lidington, the group of pro-Soft Brexit Cabinet Ministers fronted by Amber Rudd, and the policy instincts of the civil service.  And the Conservative Party would face the prospect of a formal split, paving the way for a Marxist government under Jeremy Corbyn.

DUP MPs meet this morning.  If they decide that the Brady amendment is at least a start, and declare that it should form the basis of an approach to Brussels, ERG members should take note.  It may of course be that there is some procedural twist later today that ConservativeHome can’t anticipate this morning, but the choice for pro-Brexit MPs as we write is a straightforward one.

The stark truth is that by angling for everything they risk getting nothing – whether the Cooper amendment passes today or not.  Plus the risk of paving the way either for Brexit in name only, or for a second referendum that could tear the country apart, whatever the result.

May needs a new offer to make to the EU. Paul Bew has one for her. She should take it up.

He advised the man who co-won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Belfast Agreement – and argues that the backstop breaches it.

ConservativeHome wishes the Brady amendment the very best of luck tomorrow.  Its core proposal is to replace the Northern Ireland backstop with “alternative arrangements”.  The phrase is usually read as a code for the maximum facilitation plan first outlined by the Government during the summer of 2017 in a position paper. The idea was dismissed by Sabine Weyand as being like “a hunt for the unicorn”.

Before last week, it would have been easy for the EU to stick to this script.  That has become more difficult now that Michel Barnier, no less, has said that “my team have worked hard to study how controls can be made paperless or decentralised, which will be useful in all circumstances”.  Maxfac suggests the use of new technology away from the border; Barnier wants paperless controls away from the centre in question (namely, the border).  He has thus become the unicorn hunt’s latest recruit.

It is easy to show up the self-contradiction embedded in the EU’s position.  (This first emerged a while ago: Barnier originally suggested that most checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as now envisaged under May’s deal, should take place away from the sea border itself.)  It is harder to believe that it will now drop the entire backstop simply because Barnier has been proven to indulge in a bit of “magical thinking” himself.

To abandon the backstop when it was first floated, towards the end of 2017, wouldn’t have meant a loss of face.  But too much political capital has been invested in it now, by both Brussels and Dublin, for it to be junked altogether.  Furthermore, the Brady amendment may not win the support either of some pro-Remain Conservative MPs – who will take precisely that view – or of some ERG members and other Brexiteers, who have objections to May’s deal that stretch wider than the backstop.

The potential coalition against a new plan to solve the backstop riddle might be less powerful.  Its author is Paul Bew – the crossbench peer, Chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and former adviser to David Trimble when the latter helped to negotiate the Belfast Agreement.  Bew is a heavyweight who knows his stuff.  The heart of his plan takes us back to the Joint Report agreed between the UK and EU in December 2017 in which the backstop was first made public,

Article 49, which set out the all-Ireland terms of the backstop, was balanced by Article 50, which established an all-United Kingdom counterweight.  The former reminded the Government of its guarantee “of avoiding a hard border”.  The latter committed it to ensure that “no new regulatory barriers develop between Great Britain and Northern Ireland” unless the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree them.

You may well ask how it is possible for there to be no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and for the whole United Kingdom to leave the EU.  But let us not detain ourselves with the thought that these combined clauses make no sense.  Theresa May later promptly connived in dropping Article 50 from the Withdrawal Agreement, thereby approving the new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain which she was previously committed to oppose.

The essence of Bew’s case, as set out in a Policy Exchange paper today, is that the dropping of Article 50 places the backstop itself in breach of the Belfast Agreement. “The backstop, by placing key areas of North-South co-operation under the operation of a new regime, without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, would turn the agreement on its head,” he writes.  He concludes that the Irish Government is solemnly committed to the whole Agreement in international law, and that the backstop must be strictly time-limited.

Bew is thereby picking up the Irish Government’s most powerful card – the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement – and playing it against that government itself, claiming that Downing Street “has allowed the Irish Government to weaponise the 1998 agreement in a way that prevents compromise on the backstop”.  Dublin will resist Bew’s reading of events.  Were he almost anyone else, this might be relatively straightforward.  But it will not be easy to rubbish an adviser to the Nobel Peace Prize co-winner who helped to create the Agreement.

The Government is reported this morning to be taking the Bew plan seriously.  And proposals to amend the backstop must stand a better chance of success in the negotiation than proposals to remove it altogether.  As Nicky Morgan writes on this site today (and as we did yesterday), the Prime Minister cannot simply hide behind the Brady or Murrison amendments, which the Speaker might not select tomorrow in any event.  He would find it harder to refuse a Government amendment that gives at least a nod to the Bew plan.

Our survey. May’s Deal. A majority of Party members would support it were the UK able unilaterally to leave the backstop

But the majority for such a solution is slender. And well over two in five respondents reject the deal entirely.

  • When we last asked a roughly comparable question, Theresa May’s Brexit deal had the support of 26 per cent of our panel members.  That’s now down to 13 per cent.  Doubtless part if not most of the reason is its defeat by a record margin in the Commons this week.  The Prime Minister may believe it can be revived.  This finding suggests Party members believe that it can’t.
  • Well over two in five respondents say that the deal is not acceptable – rejecting it entirely.  The total is not that far off half.
  • None the less, two in five replies also say that the deal would be acceptable were the UK to have the right to leave the backstop unilaterally.  Add the 40 per cent concerned to that 13 per cent, and May wins a majority for such an amended deal among our members’ panel.  But one almost as tight as the referendum result.

Almost good enough isn’t good enough

Strangely but truly, the best way of helping the Prime Minister is to send her back to Brussels to win concessions on the backstop.

ConservativeHome’s first rule of Commons votes is that the Speaker will do everything he can to spite the Government.  He is therefore unlikely to smile on any eleventh-hour manuscript amendment designed to reduce the scale of Theresa May’s loss this evening.  None of the Conservative amendments that would aid the Government are expected to pass – Andrew Murrison’s, Hugo Swire’s, Edward Leigh’s.  Labour will whip against them and ERG-aligned MPs will vote against them.  They take the same view of these as they do of yesterday’s letter from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker to the Prime Minister: that they carry no legal weight of any significance.

The amendment that would most spare the Prime Minister’s blushes is Hillary Benn’s, which is both anti-her deal and anti-No Deal.  It is thought likely to be carried, thereby obviating her main motion – but by a smaller margin than she would otherwise lose by.  Some Tory MPs have therefore been discreetly lobbied by Whips to back this amendment that opposes her deal.  Since Benn’s anti-deal amendment is thus helpful to May (we hope you’re still with us), it follows that he may withdraw it: indeed, it is reported this morning that he has now done so.

When unclear about procedural malarkey, it’s usually best to turn to MPs’ motives.  It will do for our purposes today to look at the Conservatives only.  They fall roughly into five groups: loyalists, Remainers, Soft Brexiteers – and then two types of harder Brexiteers.  The loyalists will of course vote for the Prime Minister’s motion, assuming it is reached, as will those Conservative MPs convinced of the merits of her deal.  Remainers, such as Dominic Grieve, will largely vote against.  Soft Brexiteers, such as our columnist Nicky Morgan, will mostly vote for.  They will then cluster around Nick Boles’ Norway Plus scheme, or some variant of EEA membership.

The harder Brexiteers divide into two main tendencies.  First, there are those set against May’s deal at any price.  Let’s call them the diehards, adapting the use of the term by James Forsyth.  They actively hunger for No Deal and the WTO minimum.  The second are those who believe, as Jacob Rees-Mogg puts it in our Moggcast this morning, that “most of the poison is in the backstop”.  Again borrowing from Forsyth, let’s refer to them as the Ditchers.  Were the UK to have a unilateral escape clause from it, or were it to have a clear end-date, most of this band of MPs would drop their opposition to the deal and move to support it.  It just might then be able to pass.

It follows that it is therefore in the interest of this second group as well as the first to vote against the deal today – since, by doing so, they would send a message to Brussels that it will only clear Parliament if concessions are made on the backstop.  But not so fast.  Some of the Ditchers are brooding over the numbers.  They calculate that if the Prime Minister loses by a big margin tonight, the EU may give up on the deal together.  And that if she does so by a small one, it will offer no further concessions.  But if she loses by a margin somewhere in between the two, concessions of real value will be forthcoming.

They may be right.  As March 29 approaches, we are hearing rather less about how the deal represents “the last word” of the EU, that “rule-based organisation”, which “won’t budge”.  And more and more about how it may blink after all.  None the less, we hope that Ditcher MPs aren’t drawn into playing clever-clever games this evening, tailoring their votes according to what they believe May’s likely majority may be, and trying to game the result so that she loses by, say, 50 votes or so in order to squeeze those concessions out of the EU.  Such wheezes are not unknown among “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”.

The simple truth is that none are in a position to second-guess the mass of individual decisions that their colleagues may take.  And that, in such circumstances, the most straighforward course is nearly always the best.  Which is this case is: to judge the Prime Minister’s deal on its merits and demerits.  What are these?  In our view, Brexit is a film, not a photo.  In other words, where Britain is on March 29 is not necessarily where we will be in ten years’ time.  For example, it would be acceptable to stay in a customs union for a transition period.  Indeed, it is inevitable, since the systems are not yet ready to escape it.

What is not acceptable is for that film to be “Groundhog Day” – in short, for a backstop from which we have no guarantee of escape lock the whole UK in a customs union, with Northern Ireland none the less divided from Great Britain.  The proposed regulatory border in the Irish sea would separate the province further from the rest of the country.  That has implications not only for Northern Ireland but for Scotland, and thus for the unity of the UK.  The deal sets up an institutional tension between Eurosceptism and unionism, since Great Britain could move further, under its terms, from Single Market and Customs Union rules, but Northern Ireland could not.

For this reason, we hope that Conservative MPs vote against May’s deal this evening.  As we’ve said before, it almost works.  Theresa May won on borders and money in the negotiation, and minimised the ECJ’s scope on laws, which could reasonably be scored as a points win.  She gained the bespoke deal that her critics said would be impossible.  She has won almost no credit for this achievement, first, because she has no media allies or strong public backing, but faces formidable opposition from both second referendum Remainers and UKIP-type Leavers; second, because U-turns and broken pledges elsewhere have bust her credibility and third, of course, because of the backstop.

But almost good enough is not good enough.  Strangely but truly, Tory MPs can best help their leader by voting her deal down today, sending her back to Brussels, and gaining those backstop concessions.  This is far from being a guaranteed outcome but it is not at all an impossible one.  The EU doesn’t want a messy Brexit on its north-west frontier if it can be avoided, especially with the possibility of recession coming to the Eurozone.  Either way, the Commons should honour the referendum result.  May’s deal ultimately falls short of doing so – and guarantees losing the DUP, together with her majority.

Profile: Singapore, the city state mistakenly held out by Eurosceptics as an example for Britain to follow

Conservatives ought to know without being told that one cannot just take a glance round the world, see which culture one likes the look of, and graft it onto one’s own.

Why can’t a woman be more like a man? When Rex Harrison, playing Professor Higgins, makes that demand in My Fair Lady, the audience laughs because, in his arrogance, he does not realise how absurd he sounds.

Why can’t Britain be more like Singapore? When Jeremy Hunt, playing the role of Foreign Secretary, made that suggestion a few days ago in a speech delivered in Singapore, no one laughed.

For the idea has been floated by many Conservatives, to whom Hunt is suspected of sucking up in order to position himself as a future leader. And the answer, as an irate Leaver put it this week, is that “we’re bloody well not like Singapore”.

Singapore is a city state whose territory occupies about 280 square miles. The United Kingdom is about 94,000 square miles in extent.

The population of Singapore is about 5.6 million, of whom 39 per cent are foreigners. The UK’s population is about 66 million, or roughly 12 times that.

And although Singapore has held general elections ever since 1959, these have invariably been won by the People’s Action Party (PAP), which currently holds 81 of the 89 seats in the Parliament of Singapore. Over that period, the UK saw changes of the main ruling party in 1964, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1997 and 2010.

During those 59 years, Singapore has had three prime ministers and Britain has had eleven. Continuity of leadership has certain advantages. It has helped Singapore achieve the long-term approach to infrastructure investment which Hunt holds up as a model for Britain.

The PAP was the creation of Lee Kuan Yew, a remarkable man, who served as Prime Minister for 31 years and 178 days, and remained powerful for another two decades. The nearest approach to that record in British history is Sir Robert Walpole, conventionally regarded as our first Prime Minister, who served for 20 years and 314 days in 1721-42.

Lee was born in Singapore in 1923, when it was a British colony, and lived through the crushing defeat of British forces in 1942 at the hands of the Japanese. After the war, he came to Britain to study at the LSE, felt overwhelmed by London and managed to transfer to Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, where in his law finals he took a starred first, ahead of two future professors of law.

He went home to practice as a barrister, changed his name from Harry Lee to the more Chinese Lee Kuan Yew, entered politics and supported Singapore’s independence in 1963 as part of Malaysia. For he accepted the conventional wisdom that this small territory, dependent on its larger neighbour even for drinking water, was incapable of surviving as an independent state.

In 1965 Lee wept, and was full of anguish, when after riots between Malays and Chinese, Malaysia expelled Singapore, reckoning its Chinese population, which is predominant, was simply too difficult to absorb.

Singapore was small, poor and vulnerable, but had a deep-water harbour and occupied a wonderful position at the tip of the Malaysian peninsular on the Malacca Straits, connecting the Indian to the Pacific Ocean, for which reason Stamford Raffles had in January 1819 founded a trading station there for the British East India Company.

So although Singapore is commonly described as being “without natural resources”, thanks to its position on one of the world’s great shipping lanes it enjoys an enormous competitive advantage, of which Lee proceeded to make skilful use, by creating the other conditions needed to develop the container port, build a successful airline and attract numerous international corporations, including banks, oil traders and refiners, ship repairers, and electrical and biomedical manufacturers.

The spirit in which he ruled is best conveyed in his own words:

“Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.”

“If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you… Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”

“You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.”

No British Prime Minister who talked like that would survive five minutes. But Lee’s authoritarian rule was widely admired, for he provided the homes, medicine, jobs and schools which Singaporeans wanted.

And in due course he passed on the baton to his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, who studied mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1974 he was Senior Wrangler, has served as Prime Minister since 2004, and could eventually be succeeded by a member of the next generation of the family.

The country they have led for so long has a reputation for being safe, clean, prosperous and uncorrupt. Troublemakers, including democracy campaigners, are not welcome. Just after Hunt’s visit, a civil rights activist was convicted for holding an illegal assembly which had been joined via Skype by a democracy campaigner in Hong Kong, 1600 miles away.

Andrew Wood recently pointed out on ConHome some of the reasons for treating the received idea of Singapore with caution:

“Singapore often gets quoted in the debate over Brexit – but usually of a fantasy version of Singapore: a low tax, low regulation mirage. The reality is that Singapore is not especially low tax, nor is it unregulated. Its corporation tax rate is 17 per cent; we will achieve the same rate in 2020. Other tax rates are lower, but mainly because its welfare state works very differently to our own, with residents and businesses required to save into a Central Provident Fund (equivalent to 35 per cent of a worker’s salaries), and it spends almost twice as much on defence as a percentage of GDP as we do. As for regulation, in some areas it is more nanny state then we are. But it is certainly true it is a more business-friendly environment then the UK.”

Conservatives ought to know without being told that one cannot just take a glance round the world, see which culture one likes the look of, and graft it onto one’s own. About 74 per cent of Singapore’s citizens are Chinese, 13 per cent are Malay and nine per cent are Indian.

It is in many ways an admirable city state, but quite different in its culture and traditions to the United Kingdom. To think we can just “become like Singapore” and our problems will be solved is culpably naive.

Even Singapore had to work extremely hard for half a century in order to become Singapore, and its sense of nationhood has very shallow historical roots compared to ours.

“But what about the schools?” you may exclaim. Singapore’s schools do indeed achieve excellent results in international league tables. They also make extensive use of the cane, a remedy for anti-social behaviour in which Lee Kuan Yew maintained an invincible belief.

If we set out, in a spirit of mindless imitation, to copy Singapore’s educational methods, it is quite possible we shall end up with the dullest elements of their system, rather as we did when we tried in the 1980s to copy the then fashionable example of Japan, and reached the unfortunate conclusion that intensive testing held the key.

An odd dispute from time to time makes its way into the public prints. It is about what to do with the bungalow, known as 38 Oxley Road, in which Lee Kuan Yew lived, and in which in the 1950s some of the founding meetings of the PAP were held.

He wanted the bungalow in due course to be demolished, but his descendants have fallen out over this question.

This rift within the Lee family may be of no real significance, but is what commonly happens in dynasties. Britain has, incidentally, had only two examples of father and son becoming Prime Minister: the Pitts and the Grevilles.

The burden of a hereditary succession is nowadays born instead by our constitutional monarchy. Might this prove, in a century or two’s time, an example which Singapore could follow?