Corbyn and May's Brexit poker game is looking like a grand bluff – but no one has a decent hand
Labour’s olive branch is not nearly as generous as it seems
On the face of it, the UK is hurtling towards a disastrous cliff edge exit from the EU on 29 March, and Theresa May is doing nothing to halt it. It also appears, after the prime minister’s talks in Brussels yesterday, that the EU and UK are poles apart, with precious little chance she will win the changes to the Irish backstop needed to secure a Commons majority.
Yet there are two parallel worlds of Brexit; perception and reality rarely meet. The three above statements are one way to read the current position, but I think they are all wrong.
First, while May will keep a no-deal exit in play to maximise pressure on the EU and MPs, cabinet ministers are convinced she has no intention of crashing out and will eventually ask the EU to extend the Article 50 process. She hopes to first win a Commons majority for a revised agreement, so she would need only a “technical” extension lasting a few weeks to push the necessary legislation through parliament.
Matters could yet be taken out of May’s hands if MPs vote for a Bill allowing them to force her to seek such an extension. They will have another opportunity next Thursday, in another series of votes on Brexit, although a second “meaningful” vote on May’s deal will be delayed until after yet more EU-UK negotiations.
Second, the EU is more flexible than its uncompromising public stance suggests. May left Brussels convinced that everyone there wants to avoid “no deal”. EU leaders have one last card: probably a legally-binding assurance that the backstop is temporary. But they will want to play it only when they are confident it would guarantee a Commons majority for the agreement. They do not trust May’s promise yesterday that she can deliver one. They worry that if they use their last card too early in this game of poker, the Tory Eurosceptics will call their bluff and come back for more, as they always do.
Third, Labour’s olive branch is not nearly as generous as it seems. To misquote The Godfather, Corbyn made May an offer she can refuse. If she opts for a permanent customs union, she will alienate some of the Tory MPs who voted for her deal last month and have no hope of winning round the 118 who opposed it. In her formal response, she will likely welcome Corbyn’s move and offer to explore his proposals in a second meeting with him.
However, allies insist May remains opposed to a customs union that, as well as threatening to split her party, would prevent trade deals with non-EU countries, which she sees as one of Brexit’s main benefits. Privately, May doubts that Corbyn could deliver Labour’s 256 MPs. The backlash from Labour’s pro-Europeans, who accuse him of ditching party policy on a Final Say referendum and facilitating a “Tory Brexit”, suggests she is right. Some Labour MPs may soon resign the party whip.
Despite his conciliatory tone, I doubt Corbyn will ever walk through the same division lobby as May on Brexit. His strategy all along has been to neither enable, nor block Brexit. I suspect he wants it to go ahead, but without his fingerprints on it. So his missive will encourage those Labour MPs who might back a revised May deal.
One key figure, Lisa Nandy, MP for Leave-voting Wigan, reckons that 40-60 Labour colleagues might vote for one if May embraced a customs union. Corbyn has edged towards a Norway Plus agreement, inside the single market and a customs union, to the delight of those Labour and Tory backbenchers who insist there is a natural Commons majority for their “Common Market 2.0” Plan. Pro-EU cabinet ministers would also welcome this and think May might end up there as a last resort, but for now, she remains wedded to her deal. Corbyn has weakened May’s hand in Brussels, which likes his plan.
While talking the language of compromise, both leaders aim to steal votes from each other’s party. While Corbyn hopes Tory MPs will back a customs union, May woos Labour backbenchers with pledges on workers’ rights.
Ironically, Corbyn’s intervention might also help the prime minister win Tory votes. He has made it easier for her to present the choice to her Tory critics as: back my deal, or the Commons will approve a soft Brexit with Labour’s support. Indeed, I’m told she was already planning to make this very move. As one cabinet minister put it: “She doesn’t want a customs union, but she is preparing to threaten one.” This could push some Tory opponents into holding their nose and voting for her agreement.
It’s hardly a great sales pitch: vote for my imperfect deal or get something much worse. But, aided by a nod and a wink from Corbyn to Labour backbenchers, it might just work.