Brexit update: May fights on multiple fronts

Amy Fisher and Tom Hamilton

Theresa May remains beset with Brexit problems on the continent and at home. Her immediate priorities today are talks with French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel, to plead for an extension to Britain’s departure from the EU until 30 June. Without a new agreement Britain is scheduled to leave the EU at 23.00 this coming Friday, 12 April.

Will the EU agree to an extension; or is Britain heading for a ‘crash out’ No Deal scenario?

Ahead of an emergency EU Leaders summit tomorrow, Mrs May must convince her EU counterparts that she has a credible exit plan that can be enacted during a short further extension to the Article 50 timetable. This sounds more simple than it is in practice. In over two years Mrs May has thus far failed to achieve consensus in her own Parliament. There is little evidence that a further short extension will change that. Chancellor Merkel has appeared more sympathetic to the Prime Minister’s difficulties. But President Macron’s team have indicated a more sceptical position, accommodating the notion that a ‘No Deal’ exit is where the UK is heading. EU Leaders could also insist on a longer extension time – perhaps up to a year.

There will be a price for agreeing to any extension. The EU’s assent would likely be contingent on a commitment from Britain to refrain from blocking or disrupting EU decisions during an extension period. Even if Mrs May is replaced by a hardline Brexiteer in any (imminent) Conservative leadership contest, EU officials are planning to seek a commitment now, in the form of a letter, that the UK will
always vote with the majority of other member states. It will also be made clear it will not reopen talks on the withdrawal agreement (published in November 2018, this sets out how the UK is to leave the UK – and was the source of Mrs May’s difficulties over the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ issue).

What needs to happen domestically? Will Labour play ball?

After a lengthy seven-hour meeting of her Cabinet a week ago, the Government opened cross-party talks with the Labour Party. Mrs May is seeking a deal on something she can get a majority for in the House of Commons. Parliament will otherwise remain in deadlock, as the Government does not have sufficient support from its own side to deliver its own programme.

Labour says there are three areas where it wants to see the Government move its position towards theirs:

  • A customs union with the EU,
  • Alignment with the single market and
  • Full dynamic alignment of workers’ rights, environmental protections and consumer standards.

The Conservatives have reportedly accepted Labour’s demand that the UK will automatically adopt new EU employment, environmental and consumer protection laws after Brexit – so-called ‘dynamic alignment’ – and have agreed to include this commitment in legislation. But Labour remains concerned that any concessions will not be ‘Boris proof’ – that is, that they may be overturned by a new Conservative Prime Minister. Ultimately, it is impossible to guarantee that a future government will not change policy, although enshrining commitments in legislation makes them more difficult to ignore or overturn.

Missing from Labour’s list of demands are two issues which are important to many Labour members and voters: preserving freedom of movement and making any Brexit deal conditional on a further ‘people’s vote’ (a second referendum).

Labour’s 2017 manifesto included a commitment that ‘Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union’ – the most restrictive immigration policy in any Labour manifesto for decades. While this caused little controversy within the Party at the time, it is causing some disquiet among members now. But the leadership agrees with the Conservative Party’s analysis that concern about freedom of movement was a significant cause of the referendum result to leave the EU, and that failing to address it will repel voters. It is unlikely to change its position.

So far as a further referendum is concerned, Labour’s policy, as agreed at its Conference last year, keeps it as an option but does not oblige Labour’s Leadership to pursue it. A significant minority of Labour MPs are strongly opposed to another referendum on the exit deal. The shadow cabinet is split on the question of a further referendum, with senior usually loyal shadow ministers including Ian Lavery, Rebecca Long Bailey, Jon Trickett and Andrew Gwynne opposed, and others including Deputy Leader Tom Watson and shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry favouring the option.

There are some who argue that Labour’s call for a confirmatory referendum applies only if it is to approve Theresa May’s deal, and would not apply equally were the deal to comply with Labour’s policy. This position would be unlikely to satisfy Labour MPs, members and supporters who oppose Brexit altogether and would like to see a way out of it. In any case, it seems highly unlikely that any second referendum proposal could get through the House of Commons without Government backing, and equally unlikely that Government backing for it would ever be forthcoming.

Can the cross-party talks succeed? Can Mrs May carry her own Party?

The cross-party talks are dangerous for Labour. If they are successful, they move Labour to a place where it is helping to facilitate a Brexit which most of its members and voters do not support. If they fail, then Labour’s refusal to compromise – even if there are good reasons for refusing to compromise – will mean that Labour will take some of the blame for the result, whether that is a no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all.

The situation is more dire for the Conservatives. Even whilst many moderate Conservatives privately accept there is no other viable alternative to working with Jeremy Corbyn, the fact of it has sent even many Conservatives into a state of despair. Brexit purists (the European Research Group) are in a state of not only despair – but rage. This was exacerbated yesterday by Conservative HQ’s notification that it would be seeking to field candidates in the European Parliament elections on 23 May, despite Mrs May saying only last month that it would be ‘unacceptable’ to take part in them and could cost the taxpayer £100m.

Mrs May yesterday faced another call for an ‘indicative’ vote of no confidence by one of her backbench MPs. This was ruled out by the Sir Graham Brady who chairs the Conservative Backbench MPs committee, but many on the Committee nonetheless reportedly told the PM yesterday that she was now ‘the problem’. Meanwhile, as well as being riven in their own ranks, polling shows the Conservatives losing public support to the smaller parties on both sides of the Brexit debate, to the UK Independence Party and to the Liberal Democrats and the new ‘Change UK’ (the new name for the breakaway group of MPs formerly known as The Independent Group).

A Conservative leadership contest is increasingly likely to happen sooner rather than later. The key challenge for any contender – from what will be a wide field – is how they can rebalance the competing extremes in the Party, to stop it shattering.