May to give speech on trip to Northern Ireland underscoring her commitment to avoiding hard border
Heather Stewart Political editor – The Guardian
Theresa May will insist she can find a way to deliver a Brexit deal that can win the backing of MPs when she visits Belfast in an attempt to reassure businesses and politicians in Northern Ireland she can break the deadlock in Westminster.
The prime minister is due to chair a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning before departing for a two-day visit to Northern Ireland to underscore her commitment to avoiding a hard border.
She is expected to say: “I know this is a concerning time for many people here in Northern Ireland. But we will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland … that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland … and that secures a majority in the Westminster parliament.”
But privately there is scepticism among many in government about the prospect of a breakthrough before the prime minister returns to parliament to make a statement about her Brexit plans on 13 February. “She’s just burning down the clock,” said one cabinet source.
Downing Street said it was still planning to give MPs the chance to vote on the government’s intentions on 14 February following rumours in Westminster that it could be pushed back into the following week. “That’s the deadline we’re working to,” said a government source, adding there had been “no change”.
While May is in Belfast – where she is also expected to meet leaders from Northern Ireland’s political parties, including Sinn Féin – an “alternative arrangements working group”, made up of Conservative backbenchers, ministers and civil servants will reconvene in Westminster.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the EU said the first meeting of the group, chaired by the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay, had been, “detailed and constructive, and the first step of a process to find common ground on the issue of the backstop”.
Backbenchers including the Treasury select committee chair, Nicky Morgan, the European Research Group’s Steve Baker and the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith attended the meeting.
The group was created after MPs from the Brexit and remain camps in the Tory party came together to promote the so-called Malthouse compromise, which involves a longer transition period while alternatives to the backstop are explored.
Morgan said the government was “taking very seriously the desire of parliament to identify alternative arrangements”. The group is expected to hold further sessions in the coming days.
But as the MPs met, senior figures in Brussels continued to underline their objections to the idea of replacing the backstop. The EU27’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who held talks with Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, on Monday, tweeted that the Brexit withdrawal agreement “cannot be reopened” and the EU is “ready to work on alternative solutions during transition” – in other words, after the UK has left.
Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier)
Dialogue @EU27 continues #Brexit. Today in The Hague with @MinPres Mark Rutte: full agreement that Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened. Backstop = only operational solution to address Irish border issue today. EU ready to work on alternative solutions during transition. pic.twitter.com/YsCNI10K71
Labour MP Stephen Doughty, a supporter of the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain, said: “The alternative arrangements group looks like a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money to create another unicorn plan for peace in the Conservative party. While senior EU and economic experts are already rubbishing the plan, a select group of Tory MPs are simply wasting time on another plan – that is already dead as a dodo.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, warned about the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on Northern Ireland, after the government conceded it had not specifically earmarked funds for avoiding disruption in the province.
The Northern Ireland minister, John Penrose, told Cable in a written parliamentary answer “the Northern Ireland Office has not specifically allocated any funding for no-deal preparations,” adding: “A number of staff across the department work on both EU exit and non-EU exit related work.”
Cable said: “If the government is serious about letting Britain crash out of the EU, there should be a dedicated unit in the Northern Ireland office, preparing for this eventuality. We can only conclude that the no-deal threat is a false one.”