As her draft Brexit deal flounders and senior members of her government threaten resignation if a compromise cannot be reached, UK Prime Minister Theresa May is reportedly going all in on what one lawmaker described as the "unicorn fantasy island" solution: Replacing the Irish backstop (perhaps the most contentious aspect of her 585-page draft agreement) with a commitment to find a "technological solution" that would avoid the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, according to the Sun and the Financial Times.
According to one Sky News reporter, the introduction of a commitment to find "technological solutions" might be enough to win over some Brexiteer Tories by helping to assuage their concerns over the possibility that the UK could find itself trapped in the customs union indefinitely following Brexit. However, serious doubts remain about whether the technology even exists to carry this out. May reportedly pledged to explore adding the technology clause during talks Monday night with Ian Duncan Smith, Lord Trimble, Lord Lilley and Owen Paterson. In theory, a technological solution would allow the EU and UK to maintain a "soft border" in Northern Ireland even if the two sides fail to hammer out a trade agreement.
PM’s official spokesman has confirmed Cabinet discussed the potential for ‘technological solutions’ (the ERG’s demand) to provide an alternative arrangement for an open border on the island of Ireland, under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.— Tom Rayner (@RaynerSkyNews) November 20, 2018
If ‘technological solutions’ could be found (and many dispute whether they even currently exist) this would mean you effectively have 3 options before a NI-only backstop kicked in: transition extension > UK-wide temproary customs arrangement > technological solutions— Tom Rayner (@RaynerSkyNews) November 20, 2018
This might provide an explanation as to how Theresa May was able to seemingly talk around IDS, Owen Paterson and Lord Trimble in Downing Street yesterday afternoon. BUT, v unclear whether technological solutions would realistically be seen as acceptable by the EU— Tom Rayner (@RaynerSkyNews) November 20, 2018
Members of the Brexiteer "Famous Five" told the FT that they're feeling "positive" about May's pledge to explore a technological solution.
Officials close to Brexiters in Cabinet (the famous five) say they are "feeling very positive" after PM promised to explore “technological” solutions to maintain a soft border in Ireland in place of a backstop.— Laura Hughes (@Laura_K_Hughes) November 20, 2018
May's concession comes as more Tory MPs have come out against the draft plan in its current form, saying it gives "too much away," according to the Sun.
But while the PM won plaudits from business chiefs, her Brexit deal suffered a fresh blow as a second former Tory leader withdrew his support for it.
Lord Howard said it betrayed too many promises to regain control and so “I can’t vote for it”.
Tory backbench grandee Sir Bernard Jenkin also accused the PM of having “impaled herself” on her soft Brexit plan.
Meanwhile, senior EU figures rowed in to help Mrs May win round her angry Tory MPs.
Michel Barnier has urged rebel MPs to accept Theresa May’s deal by telling them it ensures Britain will “take back control” after Brexit.
The prime minister had previously discarded the "maximum facilitation" model (where technology is used to scan, check and verify cross-border shipments) during the talks leading up to the Chequers plan. And while May is probably hoping that her cabinet could win over the necessary votes to win approval for her deal, according to the FT, the idea is expected to meet with much more hostility in Europe.
Speaking after a two-hour cabinet discussion on the final stages of Brexit talks, Mrs May’s spokesman noted that the draft EU withdrawal treaty mentioned “alternative arrangements” could be deployed to avoid a return to hard border in Ireland.
"One possible alternative arrangement could involve technological solutions," Mrs May’s spokesman said, confirming that the idea had been discussed in cabinet.
The idea will be seen in Brussels as an unworkable attempt by the prime minister to buy the support of Tory Eurosceptics and the Democratic Unionist party, which oppose the current proposals for a backstop.
May is supposed to travel to Brussels on Wednesday to begin talks to finalize the draft plan and also hammer out details of the accompanying political agreement (which is also facing some complications related to France and Spain, which are pushing for additional demands to be included in the report).
If she can't secure a workable agreement, it's likely that a summit set for Sunday will be cancelled, and the European Union will begin contingency planning for a hard Brexit.
But the fact that May is pinning her hopes for passing the deal on an idea that many derided as a fantasy is fitting in a way. The notion that the UK and EU could ever work out a straightforward, mutually agreeable separation agreement was ridiculous from the very beginning.