This is a desperate last attempt to save Brexit, from a defeated prime minister

This is what May’s Brexit has come down to: a toss of the coin between her plan and her agreeing to implement a Labour Brexit if that is the will of the House of Commons

John Rentoul
Tuesday 02 April 2019 23:02
Theresa May says UK will seek 'short extension' as she reaches out to Corbyn for new deal

This feels like the last throw of the dice by a defeated prime minister. Theresa May has put herself at the mercy of Jeremy Corbyn. Good luck with that. His whole political project is based on “never kissed a Tory” partisanship. But that is just a show she has to go through in order then to throw herself on the mercy of the House of Commons.

I do not see how Corbyn could ever bring himself to vote for anything that May proposes, even if it were lifted word for word from the collected Brexit speeches of Keir Starmer and Corbyn himself. So then we move to stage two of the prime minister’s proposal, which is to agree to be bound by a decision of the house.

Crucially, as she said in her statement, the opposition would need to agree to be bound by it too, whatever it was.

Could Corbyn refuse to be bound by the majority of the House of Commons, having just taken part in indicative votes that have tried – unsuccessfully so far – to find out what that majority is? We shall find out soon enough. He will not back a Tory Brexit, but could he back a parliament’s Brexit?

The huge question is what kind of Brexit that would be.

As the prime minister said, the first thing we know about it is that it would include the withdrawal agreement she has already negotiated. In past weeks, Labour objections to it have been pushed back to the point where Starmer has recently accepted that the problem with it is only that it leads to a “blindfold” Brexit – in other words, that Labour’s only problem is with the next stage of negotiations, over the long-term trade relationship with the EU.

So the debate would then be back to the familiar cycle of options: a customs union, membership of the single market and possibly another referendum, although that is a process not an outcome.

The question is by what process these options could be whittled down to a single one that could be said to command a majority? Any form of preferential voting would end up with one of two outcomes: the prime minister’s deal, in which the future relationship is a range of options that do not include a permanent customs union; or the Labour plan, in which the main feature of the future relationship is a permanent customs union.

They are not very different in practice, in the short term, but they are poles apart politically, and yet no one knows which would come out on top in a binding elimination vote of MPs.

This is what May’s Brexit has come down to: a toss of the coin between her plan and her agreeing to implement a Labour Brexit if that is the will of the House of Commons. She might as well, because her time as prime minister is coming to an end one way or the other. Either we leave the EU by 22 May and she hands over to a new Tory leader to negotiate the next stage – bound by a mandate of the Commons – or she fails to take us out of the EU, we go for a long delay, and she has to resign anyway.

And the whole plan may collapse if the other EU leaders reject May’s plan for a further short extension to the Brexit timetable. Having crashed through the 29 March deadline, she now wants to miss the 12 April deadline, but only by another few weeks. The EU may not allow us to do that without preparing to take part in the European Parliament elections.

If they say no, then we are left with only two options: leaving on 12 April without a deal (and May repeated rather unconvincingly her belief that everything would be fine after a bit if we did that), or asking for a long delay.

Although May’s offer to be bound by a Commons vote on the options is a hugely significant change, and a desperate attempt to save Brexit, it doesn’t change the choices facing parliament. I don’t think it will allow a no-deal Brexit, so that means leaving with a deal – whatever that is – or a long delay.

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