What does Theresa May's compromise offer to Jeremy Corbyn mean for Brexit?

GettyJeremy Corbyn and Theresa May
  • Theresa May will hold Brexit talks with Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday afternoon.
  • The two leaders will discuss whether they can reach a Brexit compromise that will allow them to pass a deal.
  • The offer has triggered fury among Conservative MPs and suspicion among Labour MPs that May is laying a trap.
  • Here’s what could happen next.

LONDON – Theresa May will on Wednesday afternoon meet with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to reach a compromise that could allow both parties to sign up to her Brexit deal with the EU.

Reactions to the offer have varied from fury among Conservative MPs to deep suspicion among Labour MPs that the offer is a trap.

So what does May’s offer really amount to and could it really break the Brexit deadlock?

What could the compromise look like?

The prime minister last night said she was willing to seek “compromise” with the Labour party, but did not go into concrete details about what that offer meant. However, aides to May made it clear that she would be willing to consider a softening of her red lines on the Customs Union and Single Market with only the option of revoking Article 50 off the table.

This is a significant departure for the government and could, at least on paper, be enough for Labour to back the deal if she follows through on her offer. However, things are obviously not as straightforward as that. The Conservative party remains strongly opposed to remaining in a customs union with less than 40 of their MPs signing up to the plan under a free vote this week. Doing so would almost certainly lead to a string of resignations from May’s Cabinet, some of whom believe that the ability for the UK to sign independent free trade deals is the main purpose of Brexit. The nature of any offer on the customs union is therefore likely to be heavily fudged and will probably not meet Labour’s demands.

The Labour party’s demands are also unlikely to stop there. The party is committed to retaining close ties to the EU single market and also voted in favour of a plan this week to remain inside it, which would mean Britain retaining freedom of movement with the EU. The party would likely compromise on the latter point given the deep misgivings among many Labour MPs in Leave-voting areas. However, any attempt to soften the government’s red lines on immigration would trigger a major backlash both in the Conservative party and the country.

Will May and Corbyn reach a deal?

Theresa May and Jeremy CorbynGetty

Almost certainly not. Corbyn has really struggled to hold his party together over the past two years thanks to Brexit, with a number of his MPs resigning from the party to join the anti-Brexit Independent Group on the backbenches. And while views on Brexit differ wildly on the Labour backbenches, the one point of unity has been opposition to May’s deal.

Were Corbyn to remove that opposition then Labour’s whole Brexit house of cards could come tumbling down. The Labour leader will also be deeply wary of attaching himself to a process that has a high likelihood of failure. As things stand the current chaotic state of Brexit lies very firmly at Theresa May’s door. For Corbyn to take joint ownership of the process would be an incredibly risky thing to do.

There is also a fundamental lack of trust towards May from the Labour leadership that she will actually follow through on any deal they reach, not least because the prime minister has already made it clear that she will resign before the next stage of negotiations with the EU begin. Given that May’s offer of compromise is entirely based on what will happen in that next stage, it would be a leap into the dark for Corbyn to accept it, given that May’s successor could simply choose to renege on her offer.

Is May’s offer a trap?

Yes and no. On the one hand this does appear to be a real offer of compromise and were both sides willing to sign up to it, we could end up with a revised deal with a real chance of passing through the House of Commons.

However, Labour suspicions that they are being set up for a fall are undoubtedly justified. May’s statement last night suggested that she was still aiming to leave by May 22 – the original extended deadline offered by the EU if the UK Parliament passed a deal last week. The fear among Labour MPs is that the prime minister is attempting to get the UK beyond the subsequent April 12 deadline for taking part in the European Parliament elections, in order to force a scenario where it will be a straight choice between her original deal and no-deal.

However, if that is the plan then it is unlikely to be successful. The EU has already made it clear that any extension beyond April 12 will require the UK to take part in those elections, albeit with a potential guillotine to any extension coming down if and when the UK Parliament ratifies a deal.

However, even without that element, May’s offer is undoubtedly a trap. By reaching out to Corbyn in this way May has put Corbyn in a lose-lose situation. Either he signs up to a deal and facilitates Brexit, in which case he would suffer a major backlash from pro-European MPs, members and voters, or he refuses to compromise and is blamed by the government for a disastrous no-deal Brexit. Either way, May’s offer is a clear attempt to shift, or at least share, the blame for Brexit with the opposition.

So what will happen next?

Theresa May EU citizensGetty

For all of the reasons listed above, May and Corbyn are unlikely to reach a deal. However, that is not the end of the process. In some ways the far more significant part of the prime minister’s statement last night was her commitment to sign up to binding indicative votes on Brexit. This means that MPs will have the opportunity to force the government into a softer Brexit should it choose to.

Whether or not they would be successful remains to be seen. However, the results from previous indicative votes suggests that it is difficult to see any of the alternatives to May’s deal winning a majority.

However, there is a flipside to May’s offer. By making it clear that she will avoid a no-deal Brexit at all costs, the prime minister has done all that she can to persuade Conservative Brexiteers that they must back her deal or risk a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all. That this could be the real purpose of May’s offer was given away by the Environment Secretary Michael Gove on BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday.

Gove said the main aim of the offer was to make MPs “focus” on the options in front of them.

“What we’re really doing is making sure that concentrated minds in parliament have a chance to focus on the options in front of us,” Gove said.

So will May’s soft Brexit offer force Brexiteers to finally back her deal. Right now it seems unlikely. The reaction from Conservative MPs last night was one of outright fury and there is little appetite among hardliners in May’s party to give in. The Democratic Unionist party, which props up May’s minority government, also made their anger clear in a furious statement released last night.

So we’re still in Brexit deadlock then?

MPs during a debate on indicative votes on Brexit in the House of Commons, 27 March 2019.UK Parliament / Jessica TaylorMPs during a debate on indicative votes on Brexit in the House of Commons, 27 March 2019.

Yes and no.

May’s offer has almost certainly come too late to pass a deal before the April 12 deadline and so Britain is therefore almost certainly heading for a longer delay to Brexit. However, it is now possible for the first time to see how Britain ultimately finds a way through its Brexit crisis. If the EU agrees to a longer extension – dependent on new compromise talks – then it is possible to imagine parliament eventually reaching some sort of compromise, quite possibly under the condition of a second referendum to ratify the deal. If that happens then the end could well be finally in sight.

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