The grand bargain is off. Talks between Labour and the government on a Brexit compromise have reached their own impasse, according to an opposition spokesperson. They offer the same diagnosis that those involved in the ultimately fruitless three-day process have given throughout: Theresa May simply isn’t willing to budge on her red lines.
“We are disappointed that the government has not offered real change or compromise,” the spokesperson said. “We urge the Prime Minister to come forward with genuine changes to her deal in an effort to find an alternative that can win support in parliament and bring the country together.” Labour sources say ministers were unwilling to offer changes to the (non-binding) political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Without them — and legal guarantees that the next leader of the Conservative Party would keep to them — Labour could never have signed off on the withdrawal agreement. No 10 has denied Labour’s account of events and insists changes are on offer.
But was a deal ever really feasible? Conservative MPs were naturally repulsed by May’s Downing Street speech on Tuesday evening, which she framed as a meaningful offer to Jeremy Corbyn. Yet for all the foreboding talk of compromise from cabinet ministers, May made clear from the outset that a substantial shift was not on offer. “The ideal outcome of this process,” the Prime Minister said, “would be to agree an approach on a future relationship that delivers on the result of the referendum.”
Tellingly, a variant on that line also appears in the No 10 rebuttal of Labour’s statement this evening: “The Government is determined to work constructively to deliver the Brexit people voted for.”
We know that as far as May is concerned, the 2016 Leave vote was a mandate for an independent trade policy, an end to freedom of movement and an end to the current level of UK budget contributions to the EU. It is impossible to reconcile these with any of Labour’s own red lines – most notably a permanent customs union – without incurring a lot of political pain.
The opposition faces a comparable dilemma. Though on a technical level the customs arrangements proposed by May’s deal are close to Labour’s preferred model, politically the two sides are far apart. And that that’s before you begin to consider the question of tacking a second referendum – non-negotiable for much of the Parliamentary Labour Party and several influential shadow cabinet ministers – onto whatever package is agreed.
Though Labour has not closed the door on talks entirely, the substance of its message this evening is that May must move if they are to produce results. If she does not, then on Monday MPs will find themselves in a familiar position: facing a series of indicative votes on Brexit, with no obvious consensus in sight.