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17 January 2019

Theresa May’s letter to Jeremy Corbyn: What she said, and what she meant

The Prime Minister has renewed her appeal to the leader of the opposition to join Brexit talks.

By Patrick Maguire


Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for your letter. I am disappointed that you have not taken up my offer of a meeting to see if we can find a way forward on Brexit. I am pleased that all the other parliamentary Leaders of the other Parties – the SNP, the DUP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party – agreed to meet without preconditions.

Translation: You risk being seen as a wrecker if you don’t play ball.

Parliament voted to honour the referendum decision and leave the EU. We have negotiated a good deal so that we do so in a smooth and orderly way and have agreed the framework of a new relationship with the EU that protects our economy and jobs. However, Parliament has rejected that deal.

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Translation: The 230-vote margin by which I lost – and the number of my own MPs who voted against my deal – means that the only way a negotiated Brexit can pass the House of Commons is with Labour votes. Being seen to thwart this in any way means disregarding your manifesto promise and imperilling your hold over one end of your electoral coalition.

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There is every sign that the majority of the country and Parliament want to leave the EU with a deal. That is what I want and, you seem to say, that is what you want. But for that to happen Parliament must agree on a deal, and a deal that is realistic on what can be and has been agreed with the EU.

Translation: The existing Withdrawal Agreement is the only show in town. And as far as I’m concerned, the big changes you want to see to the Political Declaration – like a permanent customs union – aren’t ones I’m willing or politically able to pursue as leader of the Conservative Party.

There is little time left before we leave the EU on 29 March, so a way forward must be found quickly. That is why I, as Prime Minister, have invited you, as Leader of the Opposition, to meet and see where we have common ground, where we do not and whether, together with others, we can reach a solution.

Translation: We’re awfully close to leaving without a deal, you know, and one of us is going to have to budge if it’s to be avoided. It’s not going to be me.  

I note that you have said that ‘ruling out’ no deal is a precondition before we can meet, but that is an impossible condition because it is not within the Government’s power to rule out no deal. Let me explain why.

Translation: You can either make my deal – the only way of avoiding a no-deal outcome that I am willing to entertain – slightly more palatable, or you can deal with even messier political consequences in March when it’s still the only way of avoiding that no-deal outcome and lots of your MPs want to vote for it.

Under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and the Withdrawal Act 2018, we will leave the EU without a deal on 29 March unless Parliament either agrees to a deal with the EU or the UK revokes Article 50 and chooses to stay in the EU permanently.

Translation: Your fundamental choice remains my deal, no deal or no Brexit. Which is it to be?

So there are two ways to avoid no deal: either to vote for a deal, in particular a Withdrawal Agreement, that has been agreed with the EU, or to revoke Article 50 and overturn the referendum result.

Translation: I have a precondition of my own: it turns out that I could agree to that supposedly impossible precondition of yours – “taking no-deal off the table” – without you or your MPs acquiescing to my demands, but I don’t want to. I’ve also chosen to define “avoiding no-deal” as narrowly as possible, so as to avoid the substantially less toxic option of delaying rather than stopping Brexit.

I believe it would be wrong to overturn the referendum result. So the purpose of the discussions I have been having with other Party Leaders and MPs is to understand and explore the issues that are standing in the way of Parliament being able to reach a consensus in support of an agreement with the EU, which would avoid a no deal outcome.

Translation: The main issue being your MPs going through the no lobby. That’s going to change eventually. What are you going to do about it?

As politicians, we have a responsibility not to simply say what we want, but also to explain how we can achieve it. I recognise that you would want to put forward your own proposals and I would happy to discuss them with you.

Translation: As long as those proposals aren’t for a permanent customs union or taking the threat of no-deal off the table. Wait, they are? Well, I suppose you can guess how the discussion ends.

You have always believed in the importance of dialogue in politics. Do you really believe that, as well as declining to meet for talks yourself, it is right to ask your MPs not to seek a solution with the Government?

Translation: Your own MPs are drawing disobliging comparisons between your refusal to meet me but habit of meeting terrorists with keen alacrity. Nice parliamentary party you’ve got there. Be a shame if someone were to…run down the clock and precipitate a huge breakdown of discipline inside it.

My door remains open to a meeting without preconditions, so that we, as Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, can talk and see if we can begin to find a way forward on Brexit. I sincerely urge you to accept.

Translation: We won’t. But I’m not moving and you’ll look worse for refusing.

Yours sincerely,

Translation: not really.

Theresa May