Consensus unlikely to break out

Enraging the right, Theresa May has asked Jeremy Corbyn to help break the impasse. But is it a genuine offer or a trap, asks Eddie Ford

Sometimes, the Brexit saga has seemed like an endless loop in space-time. There has been debate after debate, with MPs essentially repeating what they had said many times before - perhaps leading you to think that everything that could possibly be said about Brexit has been already. A total impasse.

At least, that is certainly how it felt on March 29, when Theresa May’s deal was rejected for a third time by 58 votes (344 to 286) - easily meeting the definition of madness: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. True, this time round, the vote was ‘non-meaningful’, in that the prime minister had separated the withdrawal agreement from the political declaration on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union - something she had previously said was not possible. But when do you ever expect consistency from Theresa May? This was done mainly to get around the ruling from the speaker, John Bercow, that the government cannot keep presenting the same motion to the House of Commons in the hope that MPs finally submit. The rather desperate line from Downing Street afterwards was that “we are at least going in the right direction”, as the margin of defeat was smaller than the 149 earlier this month and the crushing 230-strong defeat in the first ‘meaningful vote’ in January. In another spin operation, they also pointed out that May’s deal had gained more support than any of the eight options considered by MPs on March 27 during indicative voting - the most popular being a second ‘confirmatory’ referendum that received the backing of 268 MPs.

Nevertheless, the defeat was still considerable - going from an historic loss to a humiliating loss to another humiliating rejection. You would think that there is only so much a person can endure. It is now an open question as to whether Theresa May will try to go for a fourth ‘meaningful vote’. But her chances of snatching victory at the very last minute look extremely remote, thanks to the continued obduracy of the Democratic Unionist Party, a solid rump of the misnamed European Research Group and half a dozen Tory ‘remainers’ - not to mention, of course, the fact that the other parties, including Labour, remain more or less united in opposition to the deal. Only five Labour MPs last week voted for the withdrawal agreement, which must have been a great disappointment to the government. Doubtlessly it will continue to work on the DUP, but the clue is in its name - it is a unionist party to its very core, and hence will not look kindly upon any deal that produces a differentiation of any sort between the Northern Ireland statelet and the rest of the UK.

Under the deal agreed by EU leaders in Brussels last month, if May had managed to pass her withdrawal agreement then Brexit would have been delayed until May 22. But now a further humbled prime minister will have to return to Brussels for an emergency European council summit on April 10 - just two days before the UK is formally due to leave, with or without a deal. Naturally, EU leaders want to see any new British proposals well in advance in order to get a chance to mull them over, effectively meaning that May has until the end of the week to come up with something - and it better be good if she wants to be granted a longer extension to article 50. Of course, this would create a political headache all round - both for the UK and the EU - in that a longer delay would require Britain to participate in the May European elections (or so it seems at the moment), which would enrage Brexiteers. Then again, it would give Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party a chance to strut its stuff. However, hoping beyond hope, government aides have said to the press that they still believe they can keep to the May 22 date or deadline - if her deal, or something close to it, is miraculously passed this week.

We had that Groundhog feeling again on April 1 - whether appropriately or not, given the date - when the Commons once more ‘indicatively’ voted against all four options on the table, surprising and disappointing many people in equal measure. Even the government might not have been too happy with that outcome, as, in one more junkie-like throw of the dice, there appeared to be tentative plans to have a thrilling ‘run-off’ between May’s deal and the winner of the indicative votes.

In the end though everyone was a loser, even if the margins were narrowed. Kenneth Clarke’s plan for a customs union came within a whisker of success, only losing by three votes - but it should be remembered that victory by such a small margin is unlikely to be enough on its own, because that large chunk of abstaining Tory MPs and ministers could later decide to vote against (more than likely, in fact). Other defeated motions were for a second referendum (12 votes), an emergency backstop, giving parliament the power to revoke article 50 (101) and Nick Boles’s Common Market 2.0/Norway-Plus (21). Bruised by the defeat, Boles admitted he had “failed” and resigned the party whip - later tweeting that he would sit as an “Independent Progressive Conservative”. Boles’s resignation might not be as noble and principled as it first seems, however, as his local constituency party had a few days earlier passed a motion of no-confidence against him. Better to jump than be pushed.

After she lost the vote again last week, Theresa May said the implications were “grave” and feared “we are reaching the limits of this process in this house”. Many regarded that as a warning that the prime minister was ready to call yet another snap general election on Brexit, assuming she could persuade enough of her MPs to back such a move, seeing how a two-thirds majority is required (or a successful vote of no-confidence in the government).

General election

Frankly, the threat of a general election should not be taken too seriously - though almost anything is possible in such a febrile atmosphere. Now, it is certainly the case that we may get an election way before 2022 - you can safely bet money on it actually - but not by May trying to resolve the Brexit crisis. You only have to ask a few simple questions, like what is the mood amongst the Tory rank and file - are they really gagging for the prime minister’s deal or are they closer to the ERG? You know the answer already. And what about the manifesto? Are May and her team going to write it and then expect the entire party to enthusiastically campaign for it on the doorstep? The words ‘snowball’ and ‘hell’ come to mind, considering the utterly disastrous nature of the last election run by May, when she brilliantly converted a Commons majority into a minority government. Also, obviously, what sort of candidates will the local parties choose - ERG or Theresa May types? No need to ponder on that too much.

Furthermore, most opinion polls are now showing Labour ahead by around four or five percent - representing a modest advance in fortunes. Yes, that can be temporary - especially if the Tories gets a new leader enjoying a honeymoon period (in other words, anyone but May). Nevertheless, if you are a Tory campaign manager you are all too aware that Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, could emerge as the biggest party in any election (leave aside for now the improbable notion of the Labour leader persuading the monarch that he could command a majority in parliament). The thought of such a scenario must keep a Tory fixer awake at night.

Therefore, with an election not a viable proposition and ‘no deal’ deemed unacceptable (on April 3 Yvette Cooper’s bill to rule it out was passed by a majority of one, by 313 votes to 312), and all the various Brexit options or deals so far having been chucked out, it is not entirely surprising that, after a marathon seven-hour cabinet meeting on April 2, May made a brief appeal to Corbyn to help her “break the Brexit logjam”. Unity, compromise and consensus in this time of national crisis. To this end, the prime minister met the Labour leader the following day for a two-hour session. Afterwards she described the talks as “constructive”, while, for his part, the Corbyn said they were “useful, but inconclusive”. In other words, we are still no further forward.

He had said beforehand that he accepted the need to go into the discussions in a spirit of cross-party cooperation, because he recognised “my responsibility to represent the people that supported Labour in the last election and the people who didn’t support Labour”. Peace in our time?

No, not really. Brexiteers responded with predictable fury to the prime minister’s gambit, as any agreement with Corbyn would obviously mean a much softer form of Brexit than even May’s flaccid deal. Labour has made it plain it will not back any plan without customs union membership and some sort of close relationship to the single market - a situation where the UK has to obey all the EU rules, yet has no say on its decisions. A pointless Brexit. Boris Johnson accused ministers of “entrusting the final handling of Brexit to Labour”, with Brexit itself “becoming soft to the point of disintegration”. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the ERG, commented that “getting the support of a known Marxist is not likely to instil confidence in Conservatives” - he reminded the prime minister that “leaders who decide to go with the opposition rather than their own party find their own party doesn’t plainly follow”. Angered too, Nigel Adams, a government whip, quit his job in protest at May trying to “cook up a deal with a Marxist” - treachery indeed. Other Eurosceptics and Brexiteers have warned that the prime minister’s ‘pact’ with the Labour leader could tear the Tories apart.

Stewart Jackson, a former Tory MP and Brexit advisor, demanded a change in Tory rules to allow a fresh leadership ballot (currently a Tory no-confidence vote can only be called after 12 months). Andrea Jenkyns MP, a strong supporter of Leave Means Leave, did not rule out voting against the prime minister in any Commons no-confidence motion moved by Labour, saying it would “take a lot of thinking about” - a sentiment repeated by Steve Baker of the ERG, who is so “consumed with a ferocious rage”, he wants to “bulldoze” parliament into the river. According to the useless former Brexit secretary and possible leadership contender, David Davis, up to 20 Tories could vote against May in any confidence vote - enough for the prime minister to lose her job, even if the DUP stays on board. He too thinks that a long delay to Brexit “would tear apart” the Conservative Party, resulting almost certainly in a leadership election, where “all bets are off”.

On the other hand, last week saw the forming of the One Nation Group - comprising some 40 MPs, including Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Nicky Morgan and Sir Nicholas Soames - to counter what they see as the malign influence of the ERG. The Tories are at war with each other. The ONG is aiming to host hustings in any leadership contest.

Corbyn’s fault

If Corbyn is tempted to agree any form of compromise with the prime minister that does not include a second referendum tacked onto it, he will face a surge of anger from Labour ‘remainers’ for facilitating of a “Tory Brexit” - an accusation that has already been hurled at him from various quarters, especially the likes of The Independent Group (aka Change UK). Yet if the talks with the prime minister lead to nothing, or Corbyn refuses to cut a deal with May, the Tories stand more than ready to accuse him of blocking Brexit and forcing a long article 50 extension upon the country. ‘It’s Corbyn’s fault’ will be the main line of attack, should we find ourselves facing a general election without Brexit having been delivered.

Without doubt, this is a big call for Team Corbyn, who must be desperate to get bleeding Brexit off the agenda, so they can get back to those good old bread-and-butter issues like defending the NHS and opposing austerity. When all is said and done, it is hard to see the Labour leadership doing anything to help the prime minister out of a hole of her own making. Yet, having said that, if May were to offer a permanent customs union as the price of a compromise, Labour would find itself in a very tricky position - rejecting the very thing they have been arguing for so long would look very odd indeed, if not downright opportunist and unprincipled. Putting petty party interests before the nation again.

Just how long will it be before we see an attempt to form a ‘government of national unity’? At a stroke, that would both prevent a short-term Brexit (thus opening the way for the UK remaining in the EU) and eliminate any possibility of Jeremy Corbyn leading a ‘Marxist’ government.