After a mammoth eight-hour Cabinet meeting Theresa May has dramatically changed tactics on how to deliver Brexit. She has invited the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, for talks to see if they can find a joint way through. That has caused outrage among Tories who want a hard Brexit (without a deal, if necessary) and who regard Corbyn with contempt. Whether it will break the Brexit deadlock remains to be seen. Many are highly sceptical. And it entails huge political risks not just for Mrs May but also for Mr Corbyn. So is it the right way forward, and will it work?
The Prime Minister made this radical shift in her policy because the options remaining available to her have been narrowing fast as the current date for Britain to leave the EU ( 12th April) gets closer. If nothing changes between now and then, Britain will leave without a deal, an outcome many, including the Cabinet Secretary, believe could be catastrophic for the economy and Britain’s security, at least in the short term.
Three times the House of Commons has thrown out Mrs May’s withdrawal deal, most recently by 58 votes. That’s a substantial figure and to overcome it she would need explicit help from the opposition. But attempts by MPs themselves to come up with a plan that could win a majority have also failed twice. MPs have not only refused to secure enough votes for any of their plans to leave the EU in an orderly way, but have also thrown out moves to revoke leaving altogether or to put the issue back to the British people in a referendum. This week, however, they look likely to pass a law which would prevent Britain leaving without a deal. So the Prime Minister feels herself more and more boxed in.
Her new tactic is, on the face of it, simple. Since her party lacks a majority for its own policy and MPs can’t agree among themselves on any other policy, the time has come to talk to the official opposition to see if they can compromise on a new joint policy that would secure the backing of MPs. She would then then take the freshly-agreed policy to the European Council summit meeting next Wednesday, 10th April, as the basis for an agreement to delay Brexit until 22nd May in order to give Parliament time to pass the necessary legislation. If this ‘short’ extension of Brexit were agreed, Britain would leave the EU in May and not be obliged to participate in elections to the European Parliament due at the end of May, which would be necessary if the extension were any longer.
Clearly the timetable is extremely tight and this is one reason why some observers think the new tactic won’t work. But Mrs May has reason to think that it might. What is loosely called her ‘deal’ with the EU, the one that has been thrown out three times, in fact involves two elements. There is a withdrawal agreement that settles the terms of Britain’s departure and has legal force, and a much looser ‘political declaration’ that outlines in rather vague terms the sort of long-term relationship between the EU and the UK the two sides hope to negotiate once Britain has left. The EU has said that the withdrawal agreement is set in stone and cannot be altered. But the Labour Party doesn’t really oppose this aspect of the ‘deal’, knowing that if it came to power and had to handle the issue, it would have to support such an agreement or something very like it. Its opposition has been to the (non-legal) political declaration.
The political declaration Mrs May has backed is sufficiently broad-brush for her to be able to claim that it does not breach her ‘red lines’ about the future relationship: that Britain should not be part of a customs union with the EU nor remain in the single market. These red lines are what Labour challenge. They want ‘a’ customs union with the EU and ‘alignment’ with the single market, both of which, by the way, would obviate the need for the ‘backstop’ on the Irish border that has caused such trouble for the Prime Minister in getting her deal through.
At the time of writing, it’s not clear what Labour will insist upon in its talks with the government. So far, Mr Corbyn has simply welcomed Mrs May’s approach and reiterated Labour’s policy. But it seems highly unlikely he would team up with Mrs May and provide Labour votes to back her withdrawal agreement at the fourth attempt unless she were prepared to modify the political declaration at least to the extent of countenancing a customs union (something the EU would be happy to oblige). Some in Mrs May’s cabinet would be happy with it too, because the former ‘Remainers’ in the government themselves advocate such a ‘soft’ Brexit. Since a backbench move to back a customs union failed to gain a majority by only three votes on Monday, such a deal would be likely to provide Mrs May with the majority for her deal that has so long eluded her.
To some observers, this eleventh-hour conversion to the idea of seeking compromise with the opposition is ludicrously late. The Prime Minister, they say, should have made this move the day after the 2017 election when she lost her majority in the House of Commons and it became immediately obvious that she would have real difficulties in executing Brexit. Her supporters would say, however, that timing is everything in politics and that to have made the move then would have split the Conservative Party and ended her premiership there and then.
Evidence to support this view came in the reaction to Mrs May’s decision on Tuesday. There was fury among those Tory backbenchers who have held out against her deal and among those Brexiteers who reluctantly came round to backing it. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said: ‘This is an utter disaster … We are just about to legitimise Corbyn’. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and likely leadership candidate when Theresa May goes, deplored her ‘entrusting the final handling of Brexit to Labour’.
In the eyes of many Tories, Mrs May’s act amounts to ‘doing a Peel’. In 1846 the Tory prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, defied his party by depending on opposition votes to repeal the Corn Laws, against the interests of Tory landowners. He had to resign shortly afterwards. The Tory Party split and was consigned to the wilderness for a generation. The same could happen after Mrs May’s move, they protest. (History, by the way, has almost unanimously concluded that Peel was right.)
If she does strike a deal with the Labour leader, it’s likely there will be ministerial resignations, including from the cabinet, and some backbench MPs may leave the party altogether. But she may calculate that her days are numbered anyway and if she pulls it off, she will at least have achieved one victory with her premiership: fulfilling her promise to deliver Brexit in an orderly way.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, the Prime Minister’s offer carries big risks of its own. Some of his supporters say quite simply that it is not an opposition’s job to pull a government’s irons out of the fire. Its job is to oppose. If that leads to chaos, so be it: it will be a chaos which increases the chances of the Tories being thrown out of power and Labour returning to government.
Others see the offer as a trap. If he goes along with the talks and strikes a deal, Labour will have to share in the responsibility if anything subsequently goes wrong. Equally if he talks and fails to do a deal, Labour will be blamed for the chaos of a disorderly Brexit.
But he has agreed almost immediately to talk, which suggests he has already rejected both cases. But even though he hasn’t (at the time of writing) spelt out his terms, he has already caused friction in his party by what he has not said. The bulk of Labour members (though not so much Labour voters) want another referendum so that the British public will have the chance to revoke Brexit altogether, an outcome many of them favour. But Mr Corbyn, a veteran Eurosceptic, has been lukewarm (to say the least) about this aspect of official Labour policy. His failure even to mention it in the context of his talks with the Prime Minister has led many Labour supporters to fear it is going to be ditched.
But there is a further risk to Labour in engaging with the government. Any compromise agreement will be about the political declaration, a document without legal force. Although Labour spokesmen have expressed trust in the Prime Minister to act honourably and to stick with any agreement, they know she won’t be there for long and that she could be succeeded by a ‘hard’ Brexit Tory leader, like Boris Johnson, who might simply rip up the agreement with Labour and, for example, rule out any customs union between the EU and the UK post-Brexit.
Such are the difficulties facing it that the Prime Minister’s new tactic may come to nothing. In that case, she says, she wants MPs to have another go at coming up with a policy that can command a majority in the House of Commons. She would respect that, she says, and take it to the European Council next week as the basis of a request for an extension of the Brexit date.
Whether the EU will agree to such an extension with or without a deal between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn is far from clear. EU leaders are, understandably, fed up with Britain and its inability to make up its mind what it wants. Some express a readiness to have done with the whole business and let Britain leave without a deal on 12 April. Others may be more patient but insist on a long extension of a year or more, forcing Britain to elect members to the European Parliament in May and hoping, perhaps, that the longer the failure to reach a Brexit deal persists in Britain, the greater the chance that a referendum will have to be held and the original decision overturned.
So what are we to make of Mrs May’s dramatic move? Was it right or wrong? Is it likely to work? If she can reach a deal with Jeremy Corbyn and get a Brexit policy through the House of Commons on the back of Labour votes, will her ‘doing a Peel’ prove justified by history, or will it be the final humiliation in an unhappy premiership? And what about Jeremy Corbyn: should he genuinely seek a compromise or is his job to go on opposing? Should he insist on a confirmatory referendum or not? And what do you think will be the final upshot of the Prime Minister’s move?
Let us know your views.