No Brexit Breakthrough In Cross-Party Talks
For a number of weeks now, senior figures in the government have been in discussion with their Labour opposite numbers, led by the shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Kier Starmer. Whilst the talks have always been described as “frank, serious and detailed” virtually nobody actually expected them to deliver a deal that even the negotiators could back, let alone their respective wider parties.
On the Labour side, there was considerable agitation that any deal would make the party the “hand maiden” of a disastrous Tory Brexit. Others argued that the deal on offer (May’s EU withdrawal deal) was so far removed from the promises made by the winning side and the risks exposed underlying Brexit itself so great that any deal must be subject to a confirmatory offer – their “red line”. There are some in Labour ranks that believe that being seen to back either a confirmatory vote or a People’s Vote (second referendum) would be seen by their voters as a betrayal of the original decision to leave. The Labour negotiating team demanded that the UK should remain permanently in a/the customs union with the EU as their price for supporting any deal and sought environmental and workers rights guarantees that the UK would continue to match EU standards.
On the Conservative side, many in the ERG were adamant that no deal could be approved which contained the Northern Ireland backstop (an absolute requirement from the EU). They quailed at the prospect of any deal with Labour under their left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Brexiters in the party argued that any permanent membership of a/the customs union would preclude the UK’s signing its own trade deals around the world – a major advantage that they claimed for the Brexit project in the first place (it is also believed that many on the right of the party see Brexit as a chance to row back on certain standards and protections, letting market forces set these).
The end of the talks, without any breakthrough, looks imminent. Unsurprisingly, neither side was prepared to compromise on what they saw were the critical issues for them.
May intends to re-introduce a withdrawal bill to the Commons in the week of 3rd June. Cabinet ministers have suggested that if it is rejected again (assuming the speaker allows it to be called for a second time, of course…) then parliament would be faced with two options: a no deal Brexit or to revoke the UK’s article 50 notification and remain in the EU. Frankly, this is the situation which has faced the country since December 2018 when May pulled the original vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill because she knew it lacked enough support to pass.
If the Withdrawal Bill is again rejected by parliament, it is understood that Mrs May will resign as Prime Minister, triggering a leadership contest in her party.