Tory chair visits Belfast, where he insists Irish border backstop is only temporary Brexit measure

Brandon Lewis, minister without portfolio and chairman of the Conservative Party, with officials and business people at an Institute of Directors event at Dale Farm on Dargan Road, Belfast, on Friday December 7 2018
Brandon Lewis, minister without portfolio and chairman of the Conservative Party, with officials and business people at an Institute of Directors event at Dale Farm on Dargan Road, Belfast, on Friday December 7 2018

The Irish border backstop can only be temporary, a senior government minister said yesterday on a visit to Northern Ireland.

Brandon Lewis said that there were a number of hurdles before the backstop could come in, and if it did it would not be permanent.

Mr Lewis, who is minister without portfolio, and also chairman of the Conservative Party, was speaking to the News Letter on a visit to Dale Farm, in north Belfast.

We asked him about the criticism of the Withdrawal Agreement that it had, in effect, created a situation in which Northern Ireland would never be able to leave the European Union customs or regulatory zones (see below a link to where we asked the prime minister the same question).

“There is a lot of focus on the backstop but the reality is that before the backstop we’ve got an implementation period in which to secure that future trade agreement,” he said, “so it has already been clearly fleshed out in that political declaration,”

“I know people say, why can’t we get the deal finalised at the same time as the Withdrawal Agreement, but the way that the structure of EU law works you can’t do that in the EU, you have to negotiate it as a third party, so that has to come after March 29 2019.”

Mr Lewis added: “The outline of the political declaration shows that we have got that in principle agreement about what we want that future agreement to be, and we’ve got that period of 18 months roughly to negotiate that by the end of 2020.

“If by the end of 2020 we are not actually quite there, that could be for a range of reasons, ... the logical thing that the parties are more likely to look at is extending the implementation period, which is one of the options within the agreement for one to two years at most.

“You’ve also got the option even if that doesn’t work that you can have alternative arrangements which, with a few years between, there’s lots of things that can develop, particularly technology wise that solve that, before you even get to the backstop.”

Mr Lewis said that people sometimes forget that the backstop “is hugely against what the EU would ever want to come in, because from their point of view gives us tariff free access to the customs union market with no payments, no fishing rights, no free movement, which is for them I think quite difficult in terms of the four principles”.

He added; “I simply don’t believe it is likely we will end up in that position. Even if we do end up in a backstop the reality is that it has to be temporary, that is how Article 50 is structured.”

Asked if, given that this sequencing gave the EU a powerful negotiating position, it might be better to leave without a deal and then negotiate as a third party without any prior pledges, he replied: “No, absolutely not, for two reasons.

“I don’t believe that the potential of the backstop is something the EU would want and is in their interest because as I say, from the EU’s point of view ... I don’t accept that there is any reason for the EU to want the backstop at all, let alone to want it for any period of time.”

Mr Lewis added: “To the other side of your question, which is the idea of no deal, no I don’t, having just spent an hour or so, just before I came in here with businesses, that the Institute of Directors have arranged, anybody who talks to businesses actually across the UK but particularly here in Northern Ireland, it doesn’t take very long to realise why no deal is not a good option for the UK and why business doesn’t want no deal because just in time products for agri foods, it is hugely potentially hugely damaging for the job opportunities, and actually job numbers across the country.”

Mr Lewis was asked if his Conservative Party was disintegrating in front of his eyes with bitter divisions over Brexit.

He replied: “No our membership is increasing, we are increasing our professional campaigning machine, we had a very good set of local elections this year, we had a good conference.

“I am planning for 9,200 councillors getting elected next May of which two thirds roughly we are defending, and the party machine is in good health in that way and I want to continue to see that improve and grow.”

News Letter grills Theresa May on backstop

Ben Lowry on Brexit and the coming week

Jim Nicholson: MPs can still get a better deal

David Lidington: Tory pact with DUP still going