Labour has seen right through Theresa May’s rebrand of the same Brexit deal

The prime minister hopes that if talks with Labour fail, Corbyn will at least sign up in advance to accepting the outcome of the binding votes. She’ll be sorely disappointed

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 08 May 2019 18:00
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Labour's Sir Keir Starmer: A second referendum is still 'on the agenda'

Another session of talks between ministers and their Labour counterparts on a Brexit compromise – billed in advance as “critical”, “crunch” and “make or break” – has come and gone.

Their slow dance will resume this afternoon. But it looks certain to end without an embrace between the most unlikely partners in the world – Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

Hopes of a breakthrough rose after both the Conservatives and Labour suffered losses in last week’s local elections in England. Rory Stewart, the cabinet’s newest member, said the two sides were “only a quarter of an inch apart”.

It feels more like “a million miles”, as one Labour source put it.

Despite weekend headlines about a deal based on a temporary customs union until the next general election in 2022, Labour insists that May has not given any ground. It has a point: the withdrawal agreement includes a transitional agreement (and the existing customs union) until December 2020.

Nobody believes a long-term trade deal could be completed by then, so the transition could be extended for another two years to prevent the Irish backstop kicking in. Which would take us to... 2022. May’s new offer is another way of describing what is already on the table.

Although negotiations might limp on, both sides are rehearsing their lines for the blame game when the talks end in failure. The Tories are more likely to pull the plug. While an agreement would split both parties, May has little to lose because she is about to lose her job anyway.

Tory MPs hold the sword of Damocles over her: threatening to rewrite the party’s rule book so they can stage another vote of confidence in her – rather than have to wait until December, a year after their last attempt to force her out. Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, will report back to Tory MPs this afternoon on his efforts to persuade May to set out a “road map” for her departure.

May is desperate to show some movement towards delivering Brexit before the European parliament elections the government has finally confirmed for 23 May, after being in denial for weeks.

She hopes some progress might keep the Tory wolves from the No 10 door and even limit Tory election losses. But she might be disappointed on both fronts.

In contrast, Corbyn can afford to allow the negotiations to run on. It shows willing to the public; Corbyn’s personal ratings fell when he spurned the offer of an earlier meeting with May.

He might be tempted to keep the talks in play for as long as possible, so the Tories suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party this month.

Unlike May, Corbyn does not need to gamble on a deal that would deepen his party’s divisions. Two-thirds of Labour MPs are said to want a Final Say referendum but Corbyn is not keen.

According to many Labour MPs, a Brexit deal agreed by May and Corbyn would never be approved by the Commons unless a referendum on it is part of the agreement. But many Tories say a deal will never be voted through if it is accompanied by a referendum.

It is unclear whether enough Labour MPs would vote for a deal without a referendum to wipe out Tory opponents of a customs union, who could number 160. So even if the two leaders reached agreement, a Commons majority would be far from guaranteed.

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A clear sign the talks are heading for failure is that the government is stepping up preparations for another series of Commons votes on Brexit options. The aim is to force a choice so MPs could not vote down all proposals, as they did in two rounds of indicative votes. The least popular options would be eliminated until one secures a majority.

May hopes that if the talks with Labour fail, Corbyn would at least sign up in advance to accepting the outcome of the binding votes. I think she will be disappointed.

Some senior Tories want her to bring forward the withdrawal agreement bill next week but she is wary, unless Labour supports it on second reading. With that looking impossible, May will probably table her own binding votes.

But time is running out. She wants to hang on until the autumn, to see through the bill’s passage. The government’s latest target for approval of the bill is July, with the UK leaving on 1 August.

However, a disastrous European election defeat would be the last straw for many Tory MPs, and not just the usual Eurosceptic suspects. It would not matter that Tory opposition to May’s deal resulted in the elections going ahead. She would get the blame when the full scale of the Tory defeat is known on 27 May. The point of maximum danger for her will be when MPs return from their Whitsun break on 4 June. It could be the end of May in every sense.

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