May snubs compromise as Labour moves to ‘third phase’ of Brexit policy

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Just days after the government suffered a historic defeat on its Brexit deal – the largest defeat of any government in modern history, let us not hesitate to repeat – Theresa May is expected to return to parliament with the same plan. In a conference call last night, the Prime Minister reportedly told her cabinet that she doesn’t intent to change course. Instead, she will aim to win enough Tory and DUP support to get her deal through by seeking assurances on the backstop. Sound familiar? Possibly because that’s exactly what she vowed to do over Christmas.

How will she do it? The EU hasn’t, as hoped, changed its mind on the backstop after watching MPs reject the deal – after all, Ireland is still a member, and the backstop was actually May’s demand in the first place, and it only survives as an idea due to her red lines. There are rumours that she’d like to amend the Good Friday Agreement, which is clearly not viable. Another scheme involves a bilateral treaty with Ireland, which the Irish government has already quashed.

Was Jeremy Corbyn right to turn down May’s invite to Brexit talks last week? According to our latest survey, which attracted 5,625 responses, 60% of LabourList readers think he made the right call. It’s clear that the cross-party discussions were indeed a “stunt” and the PM had no intention of changing course until having at least one more go at convincing her party and confidence-and-supply partner. She knows that opting for customs union membership would split the Conservative Party, and why risk being that Tory leader? But, in her statement to the Commons today, May will no doubt place the blame on Corbyn for the failure of cross-party talks. Labour can only hope the public realise she is prioritising party unity above the national interest.

Over the weekend, Labour’s Brexit position developed when Keir Starmer gave a speech at the Fabians conference (read the full text here – note that LL gets a mention – and our key takeaways here). The headlines are that Labour is at the ‘third phase’ of its policy set out at conference, i.e. the alternative Brexit plan or backing a public vote. Again, the leadership won’t be moving swiftly onto the latter now that May has rejected compromise, but will instead wait to see how long her stubborn approach holds.

What’s clear is that Labour considers Article 50 extension “inevitable”, to quote Starmer, and this is important in deciding whether to support Yvette Cooper’s latest amendment. Although the opposition wants to make clear that responsibility for delaying Brexit lies with the government, Labour also wants to block ‘no deal’. Cooper’s move would give MPs a vote on whether to extend Article 50 if no agreement has been reached by the end of February, i.e. stop May running the clock down any further.

In what could become crucial in any future cross-party agreement, Starmer conceded on Marr the next day that “at this stage, any deal probably does require a backstop”. But if May does succeed in getting her ‘Plan B’ through with Tory and DUP votes, it is the Shadow Brexit Secretary’s other admissions that matter. “It’s a commitment to you, our members and our movement. And it is one we will keep,” he said of the key pledge about all options remaining on the table. The idea of another referendum, which has “significant support” among Labour members and some MPs, “has to be an option for Labour”, he added.

While answering audience questions, Starmer described himself as “a fan” of the Brexit citizens’ assembly idea, saying: “We’ve got to bring people back into these discussions, whether it’s through citizens’ assemblies or other means”. These are all largely shifts in tone rather than substance, but many MPs like to point out that Starmer has succeeded in softening the Labour position at every crunch moment. Could his backing for a further “injection of democracy” in the Brexit process break the camel’s back, or ultimately – like the backstop and extending Article 50 – become inevitable?

Sienna @siennamarla

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