An extraordinarily lengthy cabinet meeting saw Conservatives spending seven hours hatching a plan to spend the next few weeks… finding a way to blame Labour for any continued deadlock.
That is the meaning behind the announcement that Theresa May will – at last – seek talks with Jeremy Corbyn on a way to break the “logjam”, as she has described the Parliamentary impasse over the manner in which the UK is to leave the European Union.
She has painted herself into a corner by agreeing a unilateral deal with the EU, based on the “red lines” regarding immigration and other matters that she imposed arbitrarily – and then failing to win support for it, even among members of her own party.
She had spurned offers of talks from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the past. It seems clear that the only reason she is turning to him now is desperation – having put the entire country in an untenable position, she wants sham talks with Labour in order to set up the Opposition party as a scapegoat.
We already know she does not intend to vary or erase her “red lines”, which suggests a certain bad faith on her part before starting.
Politics academic Luke Cooper has said it should be easy to reach a deal, as the main difference between her plan and that of Mr Corbyn is semantic – they both want a customs union of some kind with the EU; they just call it different things.
But he tweeted that there is no support for it in the Conservative Party or among the cabinet that would have to pass the legislation that would make it possible.
This is borne out by the resignation of Nigel Adams as a Wales Office minister – exactly because he fears the UK would end up in a permanent customs union with the EU.
In addition, a Tory-Labour deal kills off the prospect of an early general election, which is Labour’s principal policy objective. Party members and voters would deplore what they would see as collusion with the Tories.
What’s more, Mrs May has said she won’t change the Withdrawal Agreement, so it’s only the Future Relationship declaration that is up for change, and those changes are not legally binding. Mrs May has said she’ll resign after getting this part of Brexit through Parliament and she’ll most likely be replaced by a Brexiteer who would not honour changes made to mollify Labour.
Mrs May has agreed to be bound by the decision of the House of Commons, and is demanding that Labour be bound by it too. But she can’t tie the hands of a future leader, and Jeremy Corbyn knows that.
Arch-remainer Andrew Adonis reckons the May offer is another trick:
May’s ‘plan’ is trickery: a short extension, spin out talks/votes until date passed for participation in Euro elections, then another ‘my deal/no deal’ cliff edge. Corbyn must say, immediately, that must be a referendum, a long extension & Euro elections
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) April 2, 2019
It’s true that she wants a deal with Labour in order to make it possible for the UK to leave the EU on May 22 – without having to participate in EU elections. It does make another ultimatum possible – and she likes this kind of brinkwomanship, even though it hasn’t helped her at all.
Jim Pickard, political editor of the Financial Times, has said shadow cabinet members don’t believe Mrs May’s offer is genuine:
Another senior Labour MP tells me:
“Why on earth should we trust them? It's as late as it possibly could be. Why not do this when she went into minority government…Now with minus-four days, she claims she wants to talk.”
— Jim Pickard (@PickardJE) April 2, 2019
Other Labour MPs know the score too:
Important to remember that Jeremy Corbyn offered to meet and agree a cross-party deal at Party Conference last year.
The Prime Minister rejected the offer, ran down the clock and put us in this deadlock and chaos. Bit rich to ask us to now bail her out but positive nonetheless.
— Jo Platt MP (@JoPlattMP) April 2, 2019
Even the Conservative government’s partners, the DUP, have expressed scepticism. Here’s that party’s statement:
Full DUP reaction to the PM’s offer. pic.twitter.com/j9GWwspTC1
— Carl Dinnen (@carldinnen) April 2, 2019
“It remains to be seen if sub-contracting out the future of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn, someone whom the Conservatives have demonised for four years, will end happily.” Indeed.
And the DUP is dead-set against any form of customs union because that party considers such an arrangement to be bringing the re-integration of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland closer. That’s one reason Mrs May is having to reach out to Labour now.
Here’s National Union of Students vice-president Ali Milani:
You can’t ignore the Leader of the Opposition for 3 years, refuse to talk, completely botch negotiations then at the 11th hour try to shift responsibility.
We see through you Prime Minister.
— Ali Milani (@ARMilani_) April 2, 2019
Here’s tax justice campaigner Richard Murphy:
Thinking about May’s offer makes it clear it is not an offer. No offer to hold EU elections, for a start. So EU will say no. No time to hold a referendum. So Labour has to say no. And no scope for negotiation. So everyone says no. Disastrous. And unhinged.
— Richard Murphy (@RichardJMurphy) April 2, 2019
And the general public know the score too:
Would I be right in thinking that today's extra long #Cabinet crisis meeting was solely to find a way of shifting the blame onto Jeremy Corbyn?
— Helen the Zen (@helenmallam) April 2, 2019
As a politician, Jeremy Corbyn’s course is clear. He cannot reject Mrs May’s offer outright, because that would certainly bring down the wrath of the Conservative-supporting mass media on him.
So he must take the initiative away from her. She is demanding talks with him on her terms, and her terms alone. That is not acceptable. Mr Corbyn needs to announce a few terms of his own.
If Mrs May cannot accept them, then responsibility for the mess she has made of Brexit remains on her shoulders – where it belongs.
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