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Tory PM Contenders rule out Backstop at Border

By Ryan Morgan

Both remaining candidates for British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, have ruled out a backstop along the Irish border. Speaking at one of the final debates of their campaigns, the Conservative rivals committed to hardening their stances on the Irish border question, a position that will likely induce a no-deal Brexit.

Asked whether they would attach a time limit to any backstop arrangement in future negotiations, Johnson replied “The answer is no. The problem is really fundamental. It needs to come out.” Hunt then reaffirmed this approach by describing the idea as “dead” and adding that tweaking it would prove futile.

The backstop stands as an insurance policy that would enable the EU and UK to maintain a frictionless border between the North and South of Ireland after Brexit. A majority of Tory MPs, however, fear its implementation will result in the UK having to remain in the EU’s custom union indefinitely – an outcome they believe would betray the will of the 2016 referendum. The EU Member States, in contrast, are insistent that any deal must contain a backstop in order to protect economic and political links on the island, and to assure goods entering the Republic meet stringent EU guidelines.

The issue has dominated Brexit negotiations since their inception but appeared settled in November last year when Theresa May revealed her government had reached a deal that could facilitate the backstop. Despite this, its addition enraged many in Parliament, resulting in numerous resignations from her cabinet and several key losses in Commons votes, spearheaded by both her own Tory MPs and DUP allies. Eventually this impasse forced her to announce she would be stepping down as Prime Minister, having failed to make any meaningful progress on the issue.

Her resignation is due to take effect later this week on Wednesday, where she will hand the reins of government over to her successor who must lead the UK out of Europe before the Halloween deadline. Polling indicates that Johnson will likely prove victorious, as he has consistently maintained a wide margin lead for the Office among Tory rank and file members.

While resistance to the backstop may be playing well among the Conservative base, elsewhere such no-deal rhetoric appears to be fuelling fires of fear and uncertainty. In the financial markets, the pound sterling has plunged to a 27-month low against the Dollar and a 6-month low against the Euro, cementing its place as worst performing major currency in the world. At home, the four main anti-Brexit parties (Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance, Greens) remain unyielding in their dedication to the backstop, heralding it as a guarantee that no hard border could return to Northern Ireland in the future.

To add to this turmoil, the threat to capsize a deal over the backstop appears to have fallen on deaf ears in the halls of power in Brussels. In a recent BBC Panorama interview, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit, Michel Barnier, characterised the threats as unhelpful and warned that the UK “will have to face the consequences” over any such action. He maintained that Theresa May’s painstakingly negotiated deal was the only path the British could take “to leave the EU in an orderly manner”, despite having thrice been rejected by the House of Commons.

While concerns continue to amass across Ireland in response to the Tory’s strategy on Brexit, there remains a glimmer of hope in Dublin that a solution can be reached at the eleventh hour. Speaking on RTÉ last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he looked forward to hearing from the “new prime minister himself as to his suggestions as to how he can secure a withdrawal agreement.” He enlisted a number of approaches the British could still take to solve the standoff, such as revoking Article 50 or requesting another extension under the prospect of further negotiation.