Theresa May runs out of options and pivots towards softer Brexit
Prime minister risks tearing Tories apart by seeking to pass deal with Labour votes
Theresa May’s statement on Tuesday night, after a cabinet meeting lasting more than seven hours, represents a dramatic pivot towards a soft Brexit as she abandons her strategy of passing a deal with Conservative and DUP votes.
Hardline Brexiteers in her party left the prime minister with no other option if she wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit next week, which her cabinet secretary warned ministers would lead to dire consequences.
When Conservative hardliners and the DUP voted against the withdrawal agreement last Friday, they rejected the hardest available form of Brexit. Any compromise that emerges from talks with Jeremy Corbyn or from indicative votes by MPs will involve closer economic integration with the EU than the prime minister’s deal envisaged.
If she fails to agree a common approach with Corbyn, May will agree to adopt any option the House of Commons approves – on condition that Labour agrees to do likewise.
Corbyn will be wary of agreeing a common approach but he may find it difficult to avoid accepting the outcome of indicative votes by MPs – something he demanded last Wednesday that the prime minister should commit to.
May’s statement made clear that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated and that her discussions with the Labour leader will focus on the political declaration that sketches out the future relationship between Britain and the EU. She left a number of questions unanswered, however, notably about her timetable for winning parliamentary approval for a deal.
And although she said she wanted the article 50 extension to be “as short as possible”, she did not specify how long, only saying that it “ends when we pass a deal” in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
“We would want to agree a timetable for this Bill to ensure it is passed before 22nd May so that the United Kingdom need not take part in European Parliamentary elections,” she said.
If MPs fail to approve a deal before next week’s emergency summit in Brussels, May could request a long extension and agree to hold European Parliament elections, which she could cancel if a deal is approved before May 22nd.
By seeking to pass a Brexit deal with Labour votes, May risks tearing the Conservative Party asunder ahead of a divisive leadership election and a likely general election later this year. But as they denounce the prime minister and gaze upon the wreckage of their dream of a pure Brexit, the hardliners in her party must know they have only themselves to blame.