03 April 2019, The Tablet

Can a May-Corbyn meeting break the Brexit impasse?

Michael Gove explained that in such talks both sides had to remain bound by their manifesto commitments made before the 2017 general election

Can a May-Corbyn meeting break the Brexit impasse?

Prime Minister Theresa May gives a press conference inside Downing Street, London, where she said she would meet with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Photo: Jack Taylor/PA Wire/PA Images

How on earth can this work? Theresa May announced after her seven-hour Cabinet meeting on Tuesday 2 April that she was inviting the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss with her how to move on from the Brexit impasse which her own policies had created.

Later on television, Cabinet minister Michael Gove explained that in such talks both sides had to remain bound by their manifesto commitments made before the 2017 general election. He was clearly acting as her spokesman. He was one of the principal leaders of the 2016 Leave campaign.

So what were these commitments? The Conservative manifesto declared "We need to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe... Leaving the European Union also means we will be free to strike our own trade agreements with countries outside the EU." Clearly that eliminates the possibility of membership of the EU customs union.

Labour's manifesto also accepted the referendum result but insisted on "a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union." In later policy statements "the benefits of" became "close alignment with", and as for the customs union, Labour accepted it.

Those two rival policy commitments are incompatible. What has become obvious in the light of the indicative votes in the House of Commons is that the Tory policy regarding the customs union is unsustainable, and will have to give way to Labour's policy. One imagines that the prime minister realises this, although Michael Gove appears not to. Does he imagine that Mr Corbyn might give way instead? Or is he just pretending that it is a possibility, to make Mrs May's U-turn more palatable at this stage of the game? But could that last more than a few days. It is already clear that many Tory MPs, including ministers, feel the offer to consult Mr Corbyn indicates a willingness to give way.

But in so doing Mrs May is abandoning what many Tories regard as one of the chief benefits of Brexit, namely that manifesto promise that Britain would be "free to strike our own trade agreements with countries outside the EU." From their perspective, therefore, the UK will not have left the EU at all, or "in name only." It is open to doubt whether the freedom to strike independent trade deals was really as significant as they made it sound, but it was symbolic. Indeed, one has to suspect that some Tories would prefer inferior trade deals made by Britain acting alone, to better deals made under the auspices of the EU.

We are dealing here with emotion, not logic. But a policy based on a fairly transparent pretence is hardy going to last, as Mr Gove will quickly discover. The Tory civil war over Brexit will get a lot nastier, as many Tories feel Mrs May has betrayed the cause and that Brexit itself is at stake.

What she has devised is a tactic for her own survival, and she is asking her main opponent, Mr Corbyn, to help her with it. He may well calculate that her survival is becoming intolerable to the bulk of the Tory Party and therefore in its way contributes to its self-destruction. If keeping Mrs May in place stokes up the fratricidal internecine warfare so much the better, he will tell himself. And he gets the chance to look statesmanlike and conciliatory. Meanwhile a general election becomes ever more likely. Theresa May is closing off all her other options. And before long, Tory MPs will be begging Labour to table a vote of no confidence, so they can finish her off.

Clifford Longley will be writing regular updates on Brexit over the coming weeks. To read more click on the links below. 

Dark days in Brexit land

If a 'no deal' Brexit is ruled out, what next?

Revocation of Brexit on the horizon?

Could Brexit now be abandoned altogether?

Did May fundamentally misunderstand the Brexit referendum result?

What the Conservative Party really needs is a shift to the left

Is the collective of IQ of the House of Commons that of an 11-year-old?

Why is the British bulldog proving so bloody obstinate?

What do you think?


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