Can Theresa May take no deal “off the table”?

Jeremy Corbyn has asked the Prime Minister to take no deal off the table. But it isn’t wholly in her gift.

NS

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Is it possible for Theresa May to do as Jeremy Corbyn asks and to “take no deal off the table” – his precondition before entering talks with the Prime Minister to resolve the Brexit crisis? He has now gone one further and asked Labour MPs not to engage in negotiations with the government until the threat is off the table either. Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, who had gone to meet with ministers before Corbyn's request arrived with MPs, have both repeated Corbyn's call for no deal to be ruled out. Can it be done?

Well, sort of. The only way to prevent the United Kingdom leaving without a deal is for Parliament – not the government, but Parliament – to vote for something in its place, whether that is a negotiated deal with the European Union or no Brexit at all. Otherwise, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union without a deal.

But May could help to take no deal off the table by offering to bring forward legislation doing two things: first, striking the legally binding mention of 29 March 2019 as “exit day” from the Withdrawal Act; secondly, agreeing that in the absence of agreement, that she would either revoke the United Kingdom’s Article 50 notice (which can only be done to end the Brexit process) or ask the rest of the nations of the European Union for an extension (which can only be done with the support of all 27 other EU member states).  

It would then be in the gift of Parliament – and by extension as leader of the largest opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn – to actually guarantee that no deal was no longer an option.

In practice, while no deal is much more catastrophic for the United Kingdom than the rest of the EU, that it would cause economic damage to all involved means that member states would agree to extend, in the view of several European diplomats who spoke to the NS.

May doesn’t want to do this, because it risks taking the threat of a cliff-edge Brexit out of her hands and makes it harder for her to bring MPs into line. Given that Downing Street has ruled out a second referendum in conversations with the leaders of the four pro-second referendum parties (the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens) and has ruled out supporting membership of a customs union or the single market, it is not clear what May hopes to accomplish in these talks other than using the threat of no deal to force pro-Remain MPs into backing her deal in order to prevent a non-negotiated exit.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.