Theresa May has pledged to seek a further extension of Article 50 and offered Jeremy Corbyn a new set of cross-party talks on Brexit after a marathon meeting of Cabinet.
In a Downing Street statement after seven and a quarter hours of discussions with ministers, May said that she would seek a “further, short” extension to the current Article 50 deadline in a bid to prevent no-deal.
She also invited Labour to partake in cross-party talks on the future relationship in an attempt to broker a compromise that could command a majority in the Commons. Failing that, May said she would offer MPs a series of votes on a “number of options” over the future relationship.
Significantly, she pledged to abide by any decision the Commons reached on the shape of the future relationship – a marked contrast from her insistence last week that indicative votes would not be binding on the government.
So today I am taking action to break the logjam: I am offering to sit down with the Leader of the Opposition and to try to agree a plan – that we would both stick to – to ensure that we leave the European Union and that we do so with a deal.
Any plan would have to agree the current Withdrawal Agreement – it has already been negotiated with the 27 other members, and the EU has repeatedly said that it cannot and will not be reopened.
What we need to focus on is our Future Relationship with the EU.
The ideal outcome of this process would be to agree an approach on a Future Relationship that delivers on the result of the Referendum, that both the Leader of the Opposition and I could put to the House for approval, and which I could then take to next week’s European Council.
However, if we cannot agree on a single unified approach, then we would instead agree a number of options for the Future Relationship that we could put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue.
Crucially, the Government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House.
In some respects, this is nothing May or the Commons have not tried before. Fruitless talks with opposition parties have already taken place, while two rounds of indicative votes this week and last week did not return a majority for a single option.
There is a crucial line in May’s statement that suggests that the new round of discussions with Corbyn she is proposing will conclude with a similar stalemate: “The ideal outcome of this process would be to agree an approach on a Future Relationship that delivers on the result of the Referendum.”
Given that we know Theresa May defines the referendum as a mandate for, among other things, an independent trade policy, that does not suggest a compromise on Labour’s overriding priority – a permanent customs union – is likely to be in the offing. Though Downing Street has indicated but it would be open to softening those red lines – “unless there is compromise, it is unlikely we can find a way forward” – but warned Jeremy Corbyn “has to understand that too”.
If no accord can be reached, that shifts the onus to a Commons whose factions have shown little appetite to find consensus between their entrenched positions. And though the Prime Minister said her hope was that the withdrawal agreement could be agreed before 22 May – to avoid UK participation in the European Parliament elections – any offer of a long extension (which, though spoken of a fait accompli in Westminster, is in the gift of the EU27) gives opposition parties, particularly those with a continuity Remain platform, little incentive to compromise on a negotiated Brexit.
If the Commons does depart from type and agree on a plan for a softer Brexit, May risks an existential split, as the ferocious reaction of the European Research Group this evening demonstrates. But despite Downing Street’s promise of a “constructive” attitude to talks, there is no guarantee the process she laid out will produce anywhere near that conclusive a result.