Conservative Brexiteers are 'setting up' Theresa May's Brexit talks to fail

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  • Pro-Brexit MPs are "setting the prime minister up to fail" says a Cabinet minister.
  • The prime minister has committed to seeking changes to the Northern Ireland "backstop" agreement which seeks to avoid a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.
  • However, senior Brexiteers say they will only accept the complete removal of the backstop.
  • There are 53 days left to go until Brexit.

LONDON - Senior Conservative Brexiteers are "setting the prime minister up to fail" in her mission to renegotiate the Brexit deal, a member of Theresa May's Cabinet has said, after the party's MPs ruled out backing the Withdrawal Agreement even if there are major changes to it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads the anti-EU European Reform Group of Conservative MPs, said that they would not back May's deal, even if she secured a unilateral exit clause, or a time-limit, to the controversial Brexit backstop.

The backstop is an insurance policy within the Withdrawal Agreement, designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in all circumstances after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

"Neither a unilateral withdrawal or an end date solve the problems of the backstop," Mogg said.

"Replacing the current backstop entirely is something all sides could accept."

He was backed by the former Conservative Brexit minister Steve Baker, who tweeted that the prime minister should "expect a further substantial defeat" if she fails to remove the backstop altogether.

The EU has repeatedly ruled out removing the backstop and the prime minister herself has insisted that any withdrawal deal must include it in some form.

One cabinet minister told The Times that Conservative Brexiteers were "setting the prime minister up to fail" by seeking something that was "non-negotiable."

Conservative Brexiteers want the prime minister to use as-yet unidentified technology to avoid the backstop.

Asked by Business Insider last week whether the government was aware of any technology that could avoid the backstop, the prime minister's spokesman said that "we want to begin exploring exploring these options as soon as possible."

The row comes as the prime minister sets up a new committee of Conservative MPs designed to work on "alternative arrangements" to the backstop.

The committee - which includes prominent Brexiteers such as Baker and Remain-voting MPs like former minister Nicky Morgan - is tasked with looking at ways to implement a compromise plan created by the Housing Minister Kit Malthouse and backed by prominent Conservative Remainers and Brexiteers.

The committee's first meeting will take place on Monday morning. It is set discuss its work with various government departments, including the prime minister's office and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

However, sources within the cabinet believe the so-called "Malthouse Compromise" plan is unworkable.

One minister told the Times that while May had to pay "lip service" to the plan, it could not work because: "It doesn't protect the Good Friday agreement, it isn't practical for business and it is not negotiable with Europe."

Steve BakerJack Taylor/Getty Images

May committed to renegotiating the backstop after a majority of MPs backed a motion last week calling for alternatives to the arrangement.

A Downing Street source told BI that the UK was seeking to establish that the backstop would only be "temporary." However, the EU has repeatedly ruled out any substantial changes to it.

One plan being pursued by UK negotiators is to put a time-limit on the backstop of around five years. However, even this has been ruled out previously by EU negotiators who say the backstop must be "all weather."

The refusal by Conservative Brexiteers to accept this compromise has led Remainers in the party to believe that May's deal will be defeated a second time when it returns to the House of Commons later this month.

"Either the PM gets a miraculous breakthrough or, if there's no movement on the Withdrawal Agreement, she brings a deal back and it falls again," One Conservative MP told Business Insider last week.

A second defeat would place huge pressure on May to pursue a softer Brexit and to delay the date that the UK leaves. However, Downing Street continues to rule out either option, saying that the UK will leave on March 29, with or without a deal.

It comes as a series of major companies announce plans to relocate their operations from the UK, citing continuing uncertainty over Brexit. Car manufacturers Nissan announced on Sunday that they have cancelled plans to build their X-Trail model in the UK.

"While we have taken this decision for business reasons," Nissan Europe Chairman Gianluca de Ficchy said in a statement. "The continued uncertainty around the UK's future relationship with the EU is not helping companies like ours to plan for the future."

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