Faced with what still looks like certain defeat next week, I can understand why the Prime Minister is desperately trying to find a form of words which bridges irreconcilable propositions, but this is surely a step too far even by her own standards of twisted logic. The agreement with the EU which she is putting before parliament includes a commitment that the so-called ‘backstop’, under which the north of Ireland remains aligned with EU rules, automatically comes into effect under certain pre-agreed conditions but is a purely temporary arrangement until such time as certain other pre-agreed conditions are met. The problem she faces is that she, like everyone else, understands perfectly well that the second set of pre-agreed conditions can never happen unless and until the UK Government drops its red lines.
So, in order to get the House of Commons to accept the ‘only possible agreement’ (© Theresa May), the Government has accepted an amendment which means that the backstop doesn’t automatically come into effect under the agreed pre-conditions unless MPs vote for it at the time; that while it is in effect the UK (after consulting with a Legislative Assembly which is currently suspended anyway) can unilaterally reject any and every EU rule; and that the UK Parliament can unilaterally end the backstop arrangement at any time. Even if this were enough to get the agreement through the UK Parliament (although that currently looks extremely doubtful), it would no longer be the agreement which she agreed with the EU, but a completely different beast.
One can only assume that she believes that agreeing something different domestically will strengthen her hand in going back to the EU and demanding either that the Irish know their place, or else that 26 members of the EU abandon the 27th in favour of a deal with a troublesome departing member, something which would surely come close to destroying the cohesion of the EU since no member could ever trust the organisation to look after its interests in dealing with outsiders in the future. And that’s without even considering the question about whether asking parliament to ratify a deal which differs from the one she’s agreed with the EU can ever really be considered to be negotiating in good faith.
If that weren’t enough, she’s trying to persuade Labour MPs and the trade unions to support a deal (which is no longer the one agreed with the EU) by making half a promise to consider retaining EU employment rights post-Brexit. Leaving aside the question of who would ever trust anything she says given her record, any promise she makes can only be good for as long as she remains Prime Minister, under the convention that no government can bind its successors – so about six months, then, at best. Any Labour MP foolish enough to swallow that one would deserve deselection – not for failing to follow the party whip, but for being too stupid to be in the job.