Brexit: Theresa May’s red lines risk ripping Britain apart
London Letter: Unyielding principles of PM unlikely to play well in talks with opposition
Britain’s prime minister Theresa May: to win opposition votes, she will have to move towards a softer Brexit. Photograph: Henry Nicholls
Halfway through his catalogue of Theresa May’s inadequacies at the end of Wednesday’s no-confidence debate, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson identified her lack of empathy. Sunk into her bench behind the dispatch box, the prime minister appeared to flinch as if the wound had the sting of truth to it.
EU leaders and senior officials often remark on the awkward atmosphere around meetings with May, who tends to repeat the same lines in private as she does in public. That was the approach she took in Downing Street on Thursday, by all accounts, as she met opposition leaders and other MPs to discuss a way forward on Brexit.
The prime minister launched the consultations within minutes of her victory in the no-confidence vote, promising to find out what was necessary to win a parliamentary majority for a Brexit deal. Despite Tuesday’s rejection of her Brexit deal by 230 votes, however, May’s official spokesman said she remained committed to her negotiating red lines.
“Where people have pre-existing positions, of course they will want to make their argument for them, and the PM is going to listen, but you understand the principles which the PM holds, which she believes honour the result of the referendum,” he said.
“The PM has set out over the course of many months now what she believes the British people voted for, and what she believes is necessary to honour the referendum. She stands by those principles.”
The scale of Tuesday’s defeat suggests that a majority cannot be found solely on the basis of Conservative and DUP votes. But to win opposition votes, the prime minister will have to move towards a softer Brexit.
Labour’s official policy is for a permanent customs union and a close relationship with the single market; a cross-party group of MPs backs “Norway plus” which would see Britain remaining in both the single market and the customs union; and some MPs in almost all parties want a second referendum with the option of remaining in the EU.
Since Tuesday’s defeat, May has ruled out membership of a customs union on the basis that it would be incompatible with an independent trade policy. And she rejects single market membership because it requires free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Jeremy Corbyn is refusing to meet the prime minister until she rules out leaving the EU without a deal but she says such a commitment is impossible in the absence of a deal.
May will table a motion on Brexit next Monday, which MPs will debate on January 29th when they can seek to amend it. One likely amendment would open the way for MPs to debate a Bill published by Conservatives Nick Boles and Nicky Morgan.
That Bill says that unless a Brexit deal is approved by February 11th, the Liaison Committee (composed of the heads of Commons committees) must publish a plan of action by March 5th, which would go before the House two days later. The government would be obliged to seek an extension of the article 50 negotiating deadline to December 31st, 2019.
The Bill would allow MPs to take control of the parliamentary agenda in order to find a Brexit plan that can command a majority. Politicians and diplomats from the other 27 EU member states, who have been observing the drama at Westminster with anxious fascination, are reluctant to extend the negotiating deadline before a deal is agreed – and few are comfortable with an extension beyond July 1st, when newly elected MEPs take their seats.
Any extension must be approved unanimously by the EU27, who are agreed that the text of the withdrawal agreement negotiated last November cannot change. So if MPs wish to leave the EU in an orderly way, they must accept the Northern Ireland backstop as set out in the withdrawal agreement.
The softer the Brexit they choose, the less relevant the backstop will be and if they choose Norway-plus, there would never be any reason to bring it into operation. That would require the prime minister to abandon all her red lines and would tear the Conservative Party apart. Leaving without a deal or calling a second referendum, of course, risk tearing the country apart.