May heads to Brussels seeking Brexit backstop guarantees
By David Hughes, Press Association Chief Political Correspondent
Theresa May will return to Brussels to seek the legal assurances on the Brexit backstop she believes will be enough to secure Parliamentary approval for her deal.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the key to getting a deal approved by MPs was securing changes which would allow Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to alter his legal advice that the UK could potentially be trapped in the backstop indefinitely.
Speaking in Berlin as part of the Government's intense diplomatic offensive, Mr Hunt said: "I am confident, Theresa May is confident, the British Government is confident, on the basis of huge numbers of discussions with UK Parliamentarians, that if we solve the issue of the backstop then we can pass this deal through Parliament."
The Government's approach now appears to be set on securing legal guarantees about the temporary nature of the backstop measures which are aimed at preventing a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Hunt warned European leaders that the continent would be deeply damaged if a deal was not reached.
"In the future, we do not want historians to puzzle over our actions and ask themselves how it was that Europe failed to achieve an amicable change in its relationship with Britain - a friend and ally in every possible sense - and thereby inflicted grave and avoidable damage to our continent at exactly the moment when the world order was under threat from other directions," he said.
Setting out what was required, the Foreign Secretary said: "The critical thing is that the British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox needs to be able to change his advice to Parliament that currently says it is possible, if not likely, that Britain could be - under the current backstop arrangements - trapped in the customs union forever against its will."
Mr Hunt also played down the prospect of delaying Brexit by seeking an extension to Article 50.
"The last thing that people in the UK and indeed the rest of the EU want is Brexit paralysis, with this issue hanging over Europe like a shadow," he said.
Chancellor Philip Hammond indicated on Tuesday night that the Government has accepted the EU will not agree to replace the backstop arrangements for the Irish border with technological alternatives in time for the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.
But he said he hopes the technological solution contained in the so-called Malthouse Compromise will form part of negotiations over the following 21 months on the UK's future relationship with the EU.
After being briefed on developments in private talks with the PM, leading Brexiteers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker appeared happy with this arrangement, declaring that the Malthouse proposals were "alive and kicking".
Mr Baker said it was now possible that Brexiteers in the influential European Research Group, of which he is deputy chairman, would back Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement, after helping to vote it down by a massive margin last month.
"I'm hopeful that as the conversation moves forward with the EU and with the UK that we might get to a position where we can vote for the Withdrawal Agreement", said Mr Baker, but "it's a very big journey from here to there".
In a joint statement, Mr Baker and ERG chair Mr Rees-Mogg said: "We look forward to further precision about exactly what we will be asked to vote for."
Mr Hammond told the MakeUK dinner in London that the proposals in the Malthouse plan - drawn up by MPs from the Leave and Remain wings of the party - represented a "valuable effort" at finding a way to keep the Irish border open after Brexit without a backstop.
But the Chancellor said: "However promising as an alternative arrangement to avoid entering a backstop in the future, it is clear that the EU will not consider replacing the backstop with such an alternative arrangement now in order to address our immediate challenge."
The developments came as Mrs May prepared for a crucial meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
Mr Juncker has said that he does not expect a "breakthrough" in talks at which Mrs May is expected to request legally binding assurances that the backstop will not extend indefinitely.
She believes that this is the key to winning the support of the House of Commons for her deal, and seeing off efforts to extend the negotiation period in a series of votes expected on February 27.
The backstop arrangements would see the whole of the UK remain in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland following some single market rules until a wider trade deal is agreed, in order to prevent the need for checkpoints on the Irish border.
The Malthouse plan would replace these arrangements with technological methods for tracking cross-border movements, along with a free trade agreement-lite for Northern Ireland.
If this was not acceptable to Brussels, a Plan B would see the UK leave without a deal but with a transition period extended to the end of 2021 to allow time to prepare.