03 April 2019

After 33 months of insisting that her Brexit was the only option, the Prime Minister seems to have developed a new flexibility – but her new plan is not guaranteed success, says Jill Rutter.

It was another dramatic day in the unfolding drama of Brexit. Seven hours of Cabinet lockdown were followed by a pivot. The Prime Minister, who had seemed programmed to repeatedly bash her head against the brick wall of her Brexiteers, finally went in another direction.

Extending the olive branch of talks to Jeremy Corbyn comes with a backstop: if discussions with the Labour leader failed to settle on a way forward, then MPs will be asked to come up with and, “crucially”, impose their own solution on the Government. The day after a vote on “parliamentary supremacy” (which was the motion by the SNP MP Joanna Cherry in the latest round of indicative votes) was defeated, it was being offered back by the Government.

The Cabinet may have been steamrollered into accepting this serious shift in strategy, but it is a strategy which is fraught with risks.

The Prime Minister’s pivot came horrendously late

Throughout the entire process, the Prime Minister seems to have been playing for time against her opponents. But with Parliament threatening to legislate to avoid no deal, and with a Brexit cliff edge looming on 12 April, Theresa May finally told us what she meant when she said that the process she had been following had run out of road.

The problem is that she stuck on that road for far too long. It may have been an achievement to whittle down the defeats on her Brexit deal from 230 to 149 to 58, and on that rate of progress maybe a fourth vote would have seen a majority of more than 30. But the Prime Minister must have judged it unlikely. Indeed, the indications were that the ERG movers of last week were swinging away from her again.

But she has left herself precious little time to do anything with her new strategy. By Monday she needs to convince EU leaders that she has a convincing way forward. That gives her five days (assuming she works over the weekend) to either reach an agreement with Jeremy Corbyn or instead agree a way to hold decisive votes in Parliament, hold those votes, agree she will pursue the results – and then put together a convincing plan. It will be far from straightforward.

There may not be a meeting of minds between the Prime Minister and the Labour leader

  • Labour will have to finally admit it doesn't have a problem with the Withdrawal Agreement.
  • The Labour leader may make unnegotiable demands. Labour wants a permanent customs union, which Michel Barnier, the EU's Chief Negotiator, has said is feasible, but its plans for a say on EU trade policy and a “strong relationship with the Single Market” underpinned by “shared institutions” look unacceptable to an EU determined to protect its own processes. If Jeremy Corbyn demands that the Political Declaration is amended to make these changes, the EU may just say no.
  • The Prime Minister may balk at some of the red lines she is required to cross to reach a deal with Jeremy Corbyn.
  • The Labour Party may not allow their leader to facilitate a “Tory Brexit” whatever his personal sympathies – and put pressure to insist on a referendum.

Parliament may not prove easy to work with

  • The option that Parliament comes up could be unnegotiable with the EU (see above).
  • Parliament may not accept the rules of the Prime Minister’s offer: it could opt to reject the Withdrawal Agreement (again); or could demand that the Prime Minister revokes Article 50 – the thing she said was her ultimate red line.
  • Or Parliament could wreck the Prime Minister's timetable by demanding a referendum. That would make it impossible for the UK to meet the Prime Minister’s timetable of leaving by 22 May.

The EU may not agree the Prime Minister’s proposals

  • The EU may reject whatever plan the Prime Minister comes up with and simply prefer the certainty of showing the UK the door.
  • The European Council may not agree to the extension the Prime Minister wants (which, at the moment, is very unclear); it may not think that a fragile consensus to pass a deal that is opposed by a majority of the Cabinet and governing party offers the “stable and secure” majority it sought. It may offer the PM a choice: a long extension and the European Parliament elections or a short extension to prepare for no deal. Or it may impose intolerable conditions for that extension that even a UK Parliament averse to no deal finds impossible to accept. The Prime Minister will only have a day to get the necessary legislation to change exit day (again).

The Prime Minister may have made it clear that she doesn’t want a no deal Brexit. But until Parliament makes it clear that it would ultimately be prepared to revoke Article 50, no deal is still on the table.

Both parties are under pressure from the PM’s move

The Prime Minister’s approach has been denounced by her Brexiteer colleagues. But this is not risk-free for Labour either. If the Prime Minister accepts a permanent customs union, a strong relationship with the Single Market and the full slate of Labour’s demands on protections, will Jeremy Corbyn say yes and disappoint his non-reconciled Remainers? Or will he say no, and risk the ire of all the Labour MPs who have been keen to deliver Brexit?

The next few days will tell whether the Prime Minister’s move has created a genuine new opening – or is just heading for another dead end.