Labour and the EU are scrambling to ‘Boris-proof’ Brexit talks with May as the Tory leadership race heats up

There is a real prospect Theresa May will soon become a caretaker PM while her party elects its next leader

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 10 April 2019 10:57
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As Theresa May heads to Brussels to plead for another delay to Brexit, her negotiations with both the EU and Jeremy Corbyn are clouded by doubts about what happens “after May.”

With her days in Downing Street numbered and Conservative MPs increasingly determined to oust her soon, the EU27 and Labour want their agreements with her to be “Boris-proof” so a Eurosceptic successor cannot tear up any deal they reach.

May has gone from “strong and stable” to “weak and stable” and now “weak and unstable.” Once a political leader puts a time limit on their tenure, instability is inevitable. May has compounded it through actions which make her even more unpopular with Tory MPs – extending Article 50, supping with the Labour devil and raising the prospect of a customs union. Three red rags to the Eurosceptic bulls.

May’s two tricky negotiations intersected when Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, called on the EU to reopen the withdrawal agreement. She knows there is no chance of this happening, but clearly she wanted to parade her credentials as leader of the cabinet’s Brexiteers. In doing so, she sent a signal to Brussels of what the contenders to succeed May will offer the party when its leadership election comes, which might now be sooner rather than later.

So it’s no surprise that EU leaders want to Boris-proof their agreement with May by attaching good behaviour conditions so the next prime minister does not disrupt the EU, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has already threatened.

May goes into tonight’s summit in disingenuous mode. She will ask for a delay until 30 June, but knows the EU will almost certainly insist on a longer extension, either until the end of the year or next March. It’s another moment of humiliation: May has said that as prime minister, she is “not prepared to delay” Brexit beyond 30 June. Her Tory critics will hold her to her word; blaming it on the EU will not work.

There’s now a real prospect she will become a caretaker PM while her party elects its next leader.

May is also being less than candid to the EU in trumpeting the talks between the government and opposition as a credible plan to deliver Brexit. How convenient that the discussions were kept in play for the summit and will resume tomorrow. Ministers and their Labour shadows want to show the public they are negotiating seriously but admit privately there is little sign of a breakthrough.

The shadow of Boris Johnson also falls on the Con-Lab talks. Labour wants a guarantee in UK law that any deal will not be unpicked by her successor, who might in any case need to call a general election to make the parliamentary arithmetic add up for a harder Brexit than MPs will currently accept.

We shouldn’t hold our breath for an agreement. Labour’s central demand for a permanent customs union would be a step too far for many Tory MPs. The party’s centre of gravity was illustrated last night when 97 Tories opposed an extension to 30 June and another 80 abstained. Only 131 Tory MPs backed the government’s motion calling for a delay.

This would be the shape of things to come if May tried to bring in a permanent customs union; she would have to rely on Labour votes to get her amended deal through and in a battle over the legislation to ratify it. It’s hard to imagine it.

Corbyn, too, sees his room for manoeuvre limited by his party. He is under real pressure from Labour MPs and party members to make a Final Say referendum a red line in the negotiations. He risks upsetting Labour Remainers if he does a deal with May which facilitates Brexit, and risks alienating Labour Leave voters if he secures a referendum.

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Both leaders may conclude that while it’s good to talk, it’s too dangerous to agree.

Even without a deal with Labour, May will move to another round of Commons votes, possibly by bringing forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. But there is still no sign of a majority for May’s deal; as things stand, she will lose some of the Eurosceptics who backed it last time. Their priority now is to use the extension to install one of their own.

If that happens, the “after-May” era may see a further splintering of our two-party system, with more pro-EU Tories walking out of their party. The further delay to Brexit will probably ensure lift-off for Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. Meanwhile, Corbynsceptics inside Labour who put off a decision on their future until after this act of the Brexit drama might jump ship, potentially boosting The Independent Group.

Whatever happens “after May,” her legacy will not be that nothing has changed.

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