Why the talks between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are unlikely to bear fruit

A letter from 25 Labour MPs highlights the difficulties passing any Brexit resolution.

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Can the talks between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May yield a compromise that allows a Brexit deal to pass the House of Commons? Labour MPs who are worried about the political consequences of a long extension and the accompanying European elections are hoping they will, and 25 of them have written a letter saying just that to Jeremy Corbyn.

The intention is to bolster the Labour leader’s efforts in seeking a negotiated accord with the Prime Minister – but the trouble is that the letter underlines the difficulty in reaching one, rather than easing them.

That’s because it highlights that there is no realistic path to a majority for Theresa May’s deal. We know that the absolute minimum number of Conservative Brexiteers who will vote against the deal is 28: the number of pro-Leave Tories who refused to vote for the agreement even on the third time of asking. We know, too, that at least six of the 15 Conservative MPs to call for a second referendum will continue to oppose the deal as well. One important but little-noticed factor is that, while most Labour supporters of a second referendum’s second preference is for as soft a Brexit as possible, several Conservative supporters of a fresh vote believe that a soft Brexit, like May’s deal, is an unconscionable loss of British sovereignty and that no-deal is their second preference to no Brexit.

That means that Theresa May needs 35 Labour MPs to vote for her deal to cancel out the Conservatives who are certain to go the other way. Sending a letter in support of your leader’s attempts to resolve Brexit without a long extension is a cost-free political signal – but voting for a Brexit deal that ends the deadlock, potentially prevents an early election and frustrates the desires of second referendum campaigners comes with a high political cost. If the deal is one that Jeremy Corbyn cannot, for political reasons, support himself, the cost is higher still.

If only 25 Labour MPs will engage in cost-free political choices like this letter to Corbyn, there are not 35 spare votes floating around for May’s deal as written. And remember that 34 is at the bottom of the scale as far as Brexiteer holdouts are concerned. Several Brexiteer MPs who backed the deal last time have publicly said they will not do so again. The deal as written is not going to pass unless it is a genuine choice between May’s deal and the cliff-edge.

What about a deal negotiated between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May? Another letter, this time from the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry to Labour MPs, urged that any deal negotiated between the two politicians be subject to a popular vote. That position was fiercely opposed in shadow cabinet, and May won’t agree to a second referendum as it would badly split her party. But without a second referendum attached, it is hard to see how any May-Corbyn accord would attract sufficient support to pass the House of Commons.

On the Conservative side, that even pro-Leave MPs who are regarded as constructive, like Caroline Johnson, Nigel Adams or Chris Heaton-Harris, all of who voted for May’s deal on the first time of asking, are publicly venting their anger at a deal with Corbyn highlights that any agreement with the Labour leader’s seal of approval is going to struggle to hold onto even the Conservative payroll vote.

At the point where the Brexit compromise on offer retains the United Kingdom’s single market membership – and crucially the right to live, work and travel within all 32 nations of the European Economic Area – it’s pretty costly for Labour MPs to reject that deal if it doesn’t come with a referendum attached; but it is also sufficiently repellent to Conservative MPs that it would still take only a handful of MPs to sink the accord.

And that’s the big problem: that the 2017 election result means that almost every Brexit tendency in the Commons carries a veto on the way forward. There is no clear majority for anything.  

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.