May’s response to Corbyn’s Brexit demands shows only that a no-deal exit can’t be ruled out

Both leaders’ letters highlight that a deliverable exit deal is achievable at the price of splitting one of their parties, perhaps irrevocably.


Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Theresa May has responded to Jeremy Corbyn’s five Brexit demands with a letter of her own in which she says... well, it depends on how you read it. The Times’ analysis is that May has opened the door to a soft Brexit on Labour’s turn, risking a cabinet split, while the Guardian’s take is that she has politely but firmly shut down Corbyn’s central policy ask: a permanent customs union.

Who’s right? Well, there’s merit in both analyses. The subtext to both Corbyn and May’s letters is: here’s a serious and deliverable exit deal with the European Union, available to you at the low, low price of splitting your party, perhaps irrevocably. And both politicians are, unsurprisingly, keen that it be the other who picks up the tab.

If this parliament does pass a negotiated Brexit it will be with the votes of a rump of one party and the vast majority of another. The problem is that it is not clear what tangible policy concessions May could get to secure a majority-Conservative Brexit, and it is not clear that dissident Conservatives would be able or willing to assert themselves in sufficient numbers to force that majority-Labour Brexit into being.

So what’s left? That someone has to take damage to get a deal is one reason why the chances of a no-deal Brexit shouldn’t be ruled out. But that this is a parliament almost uniquely engineered to make negotiating Brexit a near-impossible task is why both sides are stepping up preparations for a general election, and why the People’s Vote campaign still hope that their preferred option of another referendum isn't entirely dead either.

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.