Theresa May’s poisoned chalice

British Prime Minister Theresa May on April 2 held out a poisoned chalice to Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, inviting him to sit down with her to craft a way out of Britain’s Brexit crisis.

Corbyn is not likely to accept the prime minister’s invitation unconditionally, since it would risk splitting his own Labour Party at the very moment when opinion polls are indicating that it appears to be moving ahead of May’s fiercely divided Conservative Party.

His immediate reaction was cautious, in keeping with a man who does not want to see Labour tarnished with the reputation of being the party that delivered Brexit for the Conservative government. He was pleased, he said, that the prime minister was now “prepared to reach out.”

May’s unprecedented offer came after several key votes in the House of Commons failed to deliver a majority for any particular way forward whilst inflicting major defeats on both the Withdrawal Agreement that the government negotiated with the European Commission in November and on the concept that the UK should leave the European Union (EU) without any deal at all.

May, in a statement delivered after a seven-hour meeting of her faction-ridden Cabinet, declared: “Today I’m taking action to break the log jam. I’m offering to sit down with the Leader of the Opposition to try to agree a plan that we would both stick to, to ensure that we leave the European Union and that we do so with a deal.”

There are two main problems with this approach. One is that May wants this sorted out within a week; the other is that it is conditional on Corbyn agreeing to work with her to pass the current Withdrawal Agreement.

What the prime minister is implicitly offering is a commitment to work to secure a softer form of Brexit, possibly by agreeing that Britain should enter into a customs union with the EU, something she has previously ruled out. This would require a change to the Political Declaration that accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement, rather than a change to the Agreement itself.

May added: “The ideal outcome of this process would be to agree an approach on a future relationship that delivers on the result of the referendum, that both the Leader of the Opposition and I could put to the House for approval and which I could then take to next week’s European Council.”

The European Council, which comprises the heads of government of the EU’s twenty-eight member states, is due to meet in Brussels on April 10. On that date, the EU leaders will either have to approve an extension to Britain’s departure mechanism, known as Article 50, or else Britain will crash out of the EU —presumably without a deal — two days later.

The prime minister’s appeal to Corbyn constituted a last-ditch attempt to try to wrest at least a degree of control of the Brexit process back into her own hands. On April 3, and probably on April 4 as well, she faces a fresh attempt by various cross-party groups of MPs to work out what conceivable ways forward might secure a majority in Parliament.

On April 1, a motion backing membership of a customs union was defeated by just three votes, 276 to 273, whilst the largest positive vote was secured by a motion calling for whatever agreement was finally reached to be made subject to a confirmatory popular referendum. This motion was defeated by twelve votes, 292 to 280, but it may yet get incorporated in some kind of cross-party composite.

While May’s appeal will no doubt grab the headlines, the most important development of the day may turn out to be the tabling of a bill for debate on April 4 by three of Parliament’s most experienced legislators, the Conservative Oliver Letwin and Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn, aimed at ruling out a “no-deal” Brexit on April 12.

The bill calls on the prime minister — within twenty-four hours of the Letwin-Cooper-Benn bill becoming law — to bring a government bill to the House of Commons seeking an extension to Article 50 for whatever length she chooses. However, this bill is to be capable of amendment so that the House is free to set its own timeframe for extension, with the government having to comply.

To show just how serious they are, Cooper, Letwin, and Benn are planning to secure passage of this bill into law, assuming it commands a majority in the House, in a single day.

In effect, this is Parliament telling the government what it must do.

One consequence of the Letwin-Cooper-Benn bill is that it gives Corbyn time to assess his own response to May’s offer. He can afford to wait a day or two to see whether the House makes progress on any specific long-term proposal for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. It also provides him with an automatic response to May’s alternative stratagem, which was to say that if she and Corbyn could not agree on a single unified approach “then we would instead agree a number of options for the future relationship that we could put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue an answer.” That is precisely the process that Letwin has been organizing for the last two weeks — in the teeth of opposition from May herself — and which may start to bear fruit on April 3 and 4.

In the meantime, May’s freedom of maneuver remains strictly limited. The prime minister is still hemmed in by ardent Brexiteers who think she has not gone far enough to ensure that Britain escapes from EU control (as they see it) and from more moderate voices who think Britain needs a softer Brexit in order to safeguard at least part of its most important trading relationship.

John M. Roberts is a UK-based senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center.

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Image: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, and the leader of opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn attend an Armistice remembrance service at St Margaret's Church, in London, Britain November 6, 2018. (John Stillwell/Pool via REUTERS)