Theresa May has cover for a Brexit transition extension, and it may help unlock negotiations

Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Council summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Council summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
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Theresa May yesterday appeared to have pulled Brexit negotiations back from the brink and despite a backlash at home, may have political cover for the concession she needed to get there, Arj Singh writes.

In an attempt to keep the negotiating show on the road, the Prime Minister agreed to consider a proposal to extend the post-Brexit transition period beyond the previously planned end of 2020 date, during which the UK would for all intents and purposes be a “vassal” EU state while the pair sorted out future trade relations.

Unsurprisingly, given that it means the UK following EU rules on free movement and trade for longer, and paying into the Brussels budget, this went down like a cold cup of sick among Brexiteers back home.

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But Mrs May has cover for it after proposing a transition of “around two years” in her September 2017 Florence speech, which even Boris Johnson praised as “positive, optimistic and dynamic”.

Expect loyalists to bring this up repeatedly in coming days.

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If extending the transition unlocks the Irish backstop issue, the PM may just have paved the road to a deal, but big stumbling blocks remain.

Crucially, the EU must accept Mrs May’s “all-UK” backstop plan, rather than the “Northern Ireland only” plan so far preferred in Brussels but rejected outright by Britain.

It remains to be seen how extending the transition factors into this but the extra time may help Mrs May sell her more complicated plan.

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The longer transition may also help her win over the DUP and Tory Brexiteers who remain bitterly opposed to any backstop which is not time limited, as it strengthens her argument that it will never need to come into force as a trade deal will be wrapped up by 2021.

Whatever is going on, do not expect a deal to be done before the October 29 Budget, which the DUP have threatened to vote down, as Mrs May knows she cannot please everyone.