With a parliament that failed to agree a majority for any form of Brexit, and a party showing no signs of rowing in behind her deal, the PM gathered her Cabinet yesterday for a seven-hour marathon session. The result? A dramatic change of approach.
The PM confirmed she will request a further extension (albeit as short as possible) from the EU and clearly now believes that any deal is indeed better than no deal.
May will now look across to the other side of the House for the votes needed for a majority for any deal. In practice, the PM is sitting down this afternoon with Jeremy Corbyn to see whether there can be a vision for Brexit, incorporating the Withdrawal Agreement, that they can agree on and secure the support of the House for. But if May and Corbyn, neither famed for their flexibility, fail to agree, then the PM would instead put forward several options for parliament to vote on. Perhaps offering the Brexiteers one final chance to back her deal. Whatever the outcome of these votes the PM has committed the Government to stand by it.
The timeframe for what will be a very fractious process over the next couple of days remains extremely tight. The PM is in search of a solution that commands a majority in the Commons which she can take to the emergency European Council meeting on 10 April.
The Headland team reflect on how the offer of compromise from the PM has been received within both parties and how they will be viewing the next few days.
Ben Mascall | Former head of strategic communications in No.10, 2016 – 2018
Events have forced the PM to choose between various unthinkable options. Drive the country to a no deal Brexit against the express will of parliament and in the face of extremely stark advice from the civil service? Seek a long extension from the EU and walk into the bloodbath of EU elections and the raw anger of the Brexit voting public? Call an election where it is not clear who would lead the Party, what they could plausibly agree to say on Brexit and with the polls showing a genuine risk of ushering in the most radical left-wing government in Britain’s history? Or take the Ramsay MacDonald approach: seek consensus with Labour where none can be found within the Conservative Party – and risk tearing it apart?
In the end, the PM took the fourth option. There is a way it could work out politically: one MP I spoke to, who backed the approach, outlined a scenario where, when the Conservative Party fights the next election, it does so as the party that delivered Brexit, attacking Labour as the party that tried to thwart and soften it. Equally, there is a way it might not: one Brexiteer told me ‘she’s going to break our party’. Saying the PM chose country over party is too simplistic – they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But she has prioritised it – as a Prime Minister ought to do.
There are also short-term risks. Many Cabinet ministers will have the forthcoming leadership contest front of mind as they consider their next steps. Others may find their strong principles enough to compel them to destabilise the process.
One other thought: all is not lost for the hard line Brexiteers. The discussion now is specifically around changes to the Political Declaration. These will, in theory, be turned into legal text by December 2020. Except they won’t of course, because the negotiations won’t be concluded that quickly. In June 2020, an extension clause will be invoked – most probably the maximum available extension taking us to December 2022. A Prime Minister more to the Brexiteers’ taste, which there is every prospect that the next leadership contest will deliver, will have plenty of time to unwind any softening of the deal that happens in the next few days.
History will show the hard line Brexiteers didn’t know when they had won. Let’s now see if they are any better at spotting that they haven’t necessarily lost.
Jack Smith | Former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party, 2015 – 2017
The PM’s statement stunned the Leader of the Opposition’s Office. They didn’t see it coming and were slow off the mark to react. However, react they did, and struck a tone of wanting to be constructive and work in the national interest.
In many ways, he is in a strong position; he knows the Prime Minister needs him to get a Brexit deal through and this gives him the option of putting forward a softer proposal, thus presenting him as a man of compromise and a statesman, working in the interest of the country.
His starting point will be the ‘Labour Deal’ that has been rejected by parliament. But realistically, if Team Corbyn embark on this in the spirit they say, this will be a negotiation, with the reddest of red lines for Labour being a permanent customs union.
But this will be far from easy. Team Corbyn are acutely aware that the Prime Minister has put them in a very difficult position: they have to engage, or risk being seen as partisan at a time of national crisis, but they are at risk of taking the blame for Brexit – and they will be very worried about how their remain-voting base reacts.
There will be growing clamour from Labour backbenchers, smaller opposition parties and the People’s Vote campaign, to make a confirmatory referendum part of the deal. It is highly unlikely that the Government will back this, but it will be essential for Corbyn to be seen to be pushing for it, or else risk the ire of remain voters.
The potential for irreparable damage to his leadership – and to the Labour Party – looms large over Corbyn, and this will have been a huge part of the Prime Minister’s thinking.
There are more opportunities for Corbyn to fail than for him to succeed in this process. But, if he plays his cards right, it could turn his political fortunes round and present him as a natural leader to reunify the country.
The coming week will be the making or the breaking of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.