The cross-party Brexit talks are going nowhere. So what’s next?

Theresa May is under pressure from her party to call off the talks, while Labour MPs are demanding Jeremy Corbyn hardens Labour’s position on Brexit.

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Is time running out for the cross-party talks? Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are under pressure to end the discussions, with 13 former cabinet ministers writing to the Times to warn May against any Brexit deal that keeps the United Kingdom in a customs union, while at a raucous meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn faced calls to harden Labour’s position on Brexit, whether from the pro-Remain majority to endorse a second referendum or from the minority who think Labour should go along with Brexit.

It underlines the problem – and the essential pointlessness – of the cross-party talks. There is no button that May can press in Downing Street to guarantee the support even of MPs in her cabinet, while there is no lever that Corbyn can pull in Norman Shaw South to secure the backing of enough Labour MPs to compensate for the loss of Tory support than any cross-party deal will bring. The divide will only become more entrenched on 23 May if, as looks likely, parties on both sides of the Brexit divide do well.

So what’s next? The essential dynamic of this parliament – that the governing party has no majority and will reject anything that might command a majority of the whole House – is only going to go away if a) we have another election and b) that election produces a parliament that looks drastically different from this one.

It’s easy to see how a) happens. The Conservative Party just has to get rid of May for it to be willing to contemplate another brush with the electorate, which is what all the various attempts to change the party’s rulebook to allow them another vote of confidence in her leadership are about.

But what about b)? Would an election actually change anything? It depends both on whether you believe the current polls, which would produce a Labour minority government dependent on one or more of the second referendum parties to govern and that in the heat of a general election campaign, supporters of the Brexit Party will stick with a political party they know cannot win enough seats to govern and whose success could lead to no Brexit at all. 

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.