Prime minister opens the door to accepting softer Brexit, as she moves to seek article 50 extension
Theresa May has offered to enter talks with Jeremy Corbyn to break the logjam over Brexit and let parliament decide a binding way forward if they fail to find a compromise.
In a significant shift, May said she would request an extension to leaving the European Union and opened the door to accepting a softer Brexit, with No 10 not ruling out accepting either a customs union or a second referendum.
The prime minister extended the offer in a televised statement from Downing Street following a seven-hour cabinet meeting, saying: We can and must find the compromises to deliver what the British people voted for”. She said there would ideally be a deal with Labour or a decision from parliament to put before the EU next Wednesday in order to allow the UK to leave on 22 May and avoid European parliament elections.
The overture to Corbyn prompted a furious backlash from Conservative Eurosceptics, including Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith, with some MPs privately threatening fresh attempts to remove May if she did a deal with Labour. The prime minister was also accused of overriding a majority in cabinet who suggested they would prefer a no-deal Brexit to the possibility of a long extension to article 50.
However, May insisted it was a “decisive moment in the story of these islands and that requires national unity to deliver the national interest”.
Corbyn said he was “very happy” to take part in the talks and accepted the need to go into the talks in a spirit of cross-party cooperation. “We will meet the prime minister. We recognise that she has made a move,” he said.
But despite May and Corbyn using the language of compromise, sources in both parties cautioned it could be extremely difficult for them to find an agreement in the short time period necessary. A deal with Corbyn would have to be hammered out before this weekend.
If they fail to reach a pact, May would move to allow parliament to vote on different Brexit alternatives under a process to be agreed with Corbyn. These would be likely to include her deal and Labour’s own proposals including a customs union and stronger protections for the environment, workers and consumers, potentially with a confirmatory referendum.
The process would be designed to allow parliament to pick a clear winner. It would also effectively give the prime minister another shot at getting her deal through the House of Commons, with the added pressure on Eurosceptics of a Labour version of Brexit gaining approval.
May said: “Today I am taking action to break the logjam: I am offering to sit down with the leader of the opposition and to try to agree a plan that we would both stick to, to ensure that we leave the European Union.”
She ruled out a no-deal departure any time soon, saying: “I have always been clear that we could make a success of no deal in the long term, but leaving with a deal is the best solution.”
Pro-Brexit Conservatives erupted in rage, with many accusing May of betrayal, while others turned their fire on hardline Eurosceptics who have repeatedly held out against her deal.
Brexit supporters in the cabinet such as Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt were not poised to resign on Tuesday night, preferring to hold a meeting of the so-called Pizza Club to decide a way forward and wait to see the result of any talks with Labour. Several cabinet sources pointed to the fact that David Davis, Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey all resigned hours or even days after the critical meetings where policies were decided they felt they could not live with. “We could be in a Chequers situation here,” one cabinet source said.
Cabinet sources say the seven hours of meetings in Downing Street were at times fractious and bad tempered. Key interventions in favour of May’s plan were made by Michael Gove, the environment secretary and former Vote Leave leader, and the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, whose evidence that the UK risked being trapped in the Irish backstop indefinitely helped sink May’s deal at the second meaningful vote.
Several of those present said that 14 ministers, including Leadsom, Liz Truss and Gavin Williamson, opposed a long extension to leaving the EU and 10 were in favour, including the chancellor, Philip Hammond, who made the case for keeping a second referendum on the table. But others claimed only four cabinet ministers were actually arguing for no deal and the rest of the 14 simply made a case against a long delay while accepting the probable need for another shorter one.
Despite the evidence of bitter splits, No 10 insisted May’s statement was made on the basis of a collective cabinet agreement, with ministers locked in a room in Downing Street to prevent leaks until she had delivered her address to the nation.
Johnson, the former foreign secretary who led the Vote Leave campaign, said it was “very disappointing that the cabinet has decided to entrust the final handling of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party”.
Rees-Mogg, the leader of the hardline European Research Group, accused May of trying to collaborate with “a known Marxist”, while Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, said: “This is an utter disaster. Gove is utterly wrong. We are just about to legitimise Corbyn. It is appalling.”
The Democratic Unionist party, May’s partners helping prop up her minority government, were also scathing about the move. A spokesman said: “The prime minister’s lamentable handling of the negotiations with the EU means she has failed to deliver a sensible Brexit deal that works for all parts of the UK. That is why she has not been able to get it through parliament.”
There was open talk among hardliners about how May could be stopped. Under Conservative rules, May is safe from another internal attempt to oust her until December, but Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said some might seek an “indicative vote” of no confidence from the 1922 Committee. “It seems to be all the rage, so why not?” he said. Others floated whether they could vote down the government in any Labour-led motion of no confidence in May in parliament.
Centrist Conservatives were more welcoming. George Freeman, formerly head of May’s policy unit, said it was right that “those MPs who have voted against her Brexit deal have a chance to back a national unity Brexit”. Cabinet ministers arguing for a soft Brexit were pleased that May had finally made a decision that they felt was in their direction, after months of trying to get her deal through on the back of the votes of the DUP and Eurosceptic hardliners.
One cabinet remainer described Tuesday’s shift as a significant step towards a softer Brexit and “a triumph of fact over wishful thinking” – but warned that it was unclear whether May’s decision would survive the furious backlash that is likely to ensue in her own party.