Few resignations but May aware of disquiet over Corbyn compromise

Analysis: MPs’ anger focuses on the apparent legitimisation of the Labour leader

British prime minister Theresa May speaks during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons  on Wednesday. Photograph: Mark Duffy/ EPA

British prime minister Theresa May speaks during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Photograph: Mark Duffy/ EPA

 

Theresa May’s decision to rule out a no-deal Brexit, tear up her red lines and seek a compromise deal with Jeremy Corbyn prompted just two junior ministers to resign on Wednesday.

But as Conservative backbenchers lined up to condemn her decision at prime minister’s questions, she was left in no doubt about the disquiet it had caused within her party.

Much of the MPs’ anger is focused on the apparent legitimisation of the Labour leader, a politician almost all Conservatives regard as beyond the pale. As the backbenchers reminded her, Mrs May has herself described him as a threat to national security who tolerates anti-Semitism and consorts with terrorists.

Conservatives are also anxious about the concessions the prime minister may be willing to offer Mr Corbyn, particularly on customs union membership. For many Brexiteers, leaving the customs union is central to fulfilling the promise of Britain becoming a free-trading nation after it leaves the EU.

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Attorney general Geoffrey Cox suggested on Wednesday that Britain could reconsider its membership of a customs union a few years after Brexit. And some pragmatists within the government acknowledge that the prime minister’s deal would leave Britain in a customs union in all but name.

If Mrs May could accept customs union membership as the price of winning a Commons majority for Brexit, she is likely to draw the line at putting any deal she agrees with Mr Corbyn to a confirmatory referendum.

Referendum

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Mr Corbyn’s spokesman said Labour was committed to holding a referendum only to avoid “a damaging Tory Brexit” or crashing out of the EU without a deal. But shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry spoke for much of the Labour membership when she told MPs that any deal approved by Parliament must be put to a public vote that offered the alternative of remaining in the EU.

Mr Corbyn risks angering most of Labour’s voters and almost all its members if he agrees a deal with Mrs May without the promise of a referendum. But he will also wish to avoid being blamed for blocking Brexit or failing to rise to the occasion when offered a chance to play a statesmanlike role.

Most betting at Westminster on Wednesday night was on the talks between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn ending in failure so that MPs will have to choose next Monday between a number of options including the prime minister’s deal.   

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