The Good Brexit News: Theresa May Tries Bipartisanship. The Bad: Some Think It’s a Trap
The Brexit saga just took a gigantic twist with Theresa May’s decision to actually seek some sort of compromise with the opposition. The prime minister on Wednesday began talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, to see if they can agree on a proposal that stands a chance of getting through Parliament.
The 2016 Brexit referendum, it should never be forgotten, was conceived by former prime minister David Cameron as a way of settling a decades-old rift within the Conservative Party regarding the U.K.’s membership of the European Union. But the rift never went away. Look at the charts that represent how lawmakers recently voted on the various Brexit options before them, and it is clear that May’s Conservatives remain as divided as ever, if not more so, while Labour sings mostly with one voice.
The path forward plainly does not lie in the fantasy of Tory unity. And so, with nine days to go before a no-deal Brexit strikes by default, May has finally given up trying to keep her party together, instead turning her attention to the small issue of the national interest.
Yes, it’s time to try bipartisanship. If May can strike a deal with Corbyn—which would probably involve the U.K. retaining close economic ties with the EU; a so-called “soft Brexit”—then there’s a reasonable chance of Parliament finally saying “yes” rather than “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” If not, then May will go with whatever Parliament decides.
It’s not quite time to pop the champagne corks yet, of course. Corbyn is himself not known as the world’s most flexible politician and, if the talks break down, there’s no evidence as yet to suggest Parliament is capable of agreeing on anything Brexit-related.
Whatever the outcome, May will have to deal with the consequences within her party of her decision to talk to Corbyn. One junior minister, Nigel Adams, has already resigned in protest at her collaborating with “a Marxist who has never once in his political life put British interests first.” Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is also on the warpath over Corbyn being “a known Marxist,” as though the Labour leader had been caught out as a closet socialist. Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S., has long identified as a democratic socialist.
Corbyn will also have to tread carefully, as, although most of Labour’s party base favors remaining in the EU, many do not. And emotions are running high. A month ago Corbyn was egged by a Brexiteer, who was subsequently jailed for assault. On Wednesday, footage emerged of British soldiers in Afghanistan using a picture of Corbyn for target practice.
Then there’s the fact that many Labour supporters suspect May’s bipartisan move is in fact a trap.
There are two “trap” theories in circulation. One holds that May simply wants to drag Corbyn down with her—once he enters talks, he shares the blame for whatever happens afterwards, thus losing his ability to pin the Brexit fiasco on the Tories once the next national election rolls around.
The other theory is incredibly convoluted, but it boils down to the idea that May—who wants another short extension to the Brexit deadline in order to hold her talks with Corbyn—is trying to drag the U.K. past the point where it would be able to seek a long extension that would allow a second Brexit referendum to take place. This is not actually possible.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rejected the idea of a short extension on Wednesday, saying: “April 12 is the ultimate deadline for approval of the Withdrawal Agreement by [the British Parliament.] If it has not done so by then, no further short extension will be possible.”
Juncker’s point was that, by April 12, if the U.K. still isn’t sure what its plan is, any extension would have to involve the country fielding candidates for the European Parliament elections on May 23. This is a legal requirement if the European Parliament is to retain its legitimacy—there must be no risk of the U.K. remaining an EU member state without representation in the European Parliament. After April 12, it’s too late for the U.K. to organize candidates or polling stations.
So May can only really ask for a long extension, or none at all. And if she does ask for a long extension, she will have to give the EU a good reason: namely, a fresh U.K. election or a second Brexit referendum. Corbyn would probably be fine with either of those options.
In short, everything now comes down to trust: is May being genuine in her belated bipartisan move, or is this all some sort of cunning ruse? That the question is being asked is not simply due to May’s own track record of bulldozing and bribing her way through the Brexit crisis; it’s also a function of the U.K.’s highly adversarial political system, which is not designed for compromise.
But U.K. politicians need to find some sort of way through the Brexit mess that doesn’t involve crashing out in nine days’ time, and bipartisanship finally being on the table means—believe it or not—that progress is being made. Even if trust is at an all-time low, both sides need to hold their noses and do their best to save the country’s economy.