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May’s Strasbourg statement sways some MPs – will it be enough?

Legal guarantees, reassurances and clarifications. Tensions build in Westminster as the country waits for the 19:00 vote

Image: Tonight's vote is scheduled to be held at 19:00

Just before 23:00 last night a tired looking Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker appeared before the gathered media: to announce the much-anticipated reassurances and clarifications May has spent the last three months trying to get. What this amounted to is a joint interpretive instrument in which the UK and EU both gave extra legal assurances that the backstop is, firstly an insurance policy which both sides aim to avoid, but secondly if it is used it is only as a temporary measure. 


At a first glance it may appear that May has addressed the main issue Brexiteers had with her withdrawal agreement. She can now state that she has secured “legal changes,” but fundamentally for MPs worried that the UK could potentially be trapped for an unlimited period of time in a backstop has anything substantial changed?


Well the joint interpretive instrument did not change a single word of the withdrawal agreement, it did not set a time limit for any potential backstop and the UK cannot unilaterally withdraw from any backstop. It does however create a mechanism by which the UK could possibly leave the backstop if it is deemed by an arbiter that the EU is not honouring its good faith agreements. While this could enable the UK to leave the backstop it does not allow it to do so completely of its own accord. 


I asked Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street Press Secretary from 1997-2000, whether he believed there were any significant changes agreed last night and if not, how number ten will try to spin this? He told me that the changes announced fell “well short of delivering on the changes the Prime Minister said she would secure.” Mr Campbell went onto say that the proposed deal “does not deserve their [MPs] support.” That sentiment is shared by the DUP who have announced that they will not just abstain from voting, but will vote against May’s deal. 


Despite all of this, there has been a steady trickle of MPs who voted against the deal last time, who now say that they will vote for the deal because of the clarifications made. That number is around seventeen at the time of writing. Mrs May and her team have made some ground – but they have to cover an awful lot more if they want to avoid a humiliating defeat and even more to avoid defeat altogether. Now we’ll have to wait and see what the result of that 7pm vote is. 


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