Theresa May made her final roll of the Brexit dice, offering to cross her red lines in “national unity” talks with Jeremy Corbyn aimed at finally breaking the deadlock.
The Prime Minister said she would seek a joint position with the Labour leader on the UK’s future relationship with the EU – and will let Parliament decide on the Brexit deal if that fails.
Her announcement yesterday following marathon Cabinet talks opens the door to a softer Brexit inside the customs union and could even lead to a second EU referendum.
It also means the UK could be set for a long delay to its exit until the end of the year, although the Government will push to have a deal ratified by Parliament ahead of European elections on 22 May, to avoid the UK having to take part.
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The concessions came as MPs prepare to take the decision on an extension out of Mrs May’s hands with plans to rush through legislation requiring a Brexit delay tonight.
In a statement in Number 10, the Prime Minister warned “this debate, this division cannot drag on”, adding: “This is a decisive moment in the story of these islands and it will require national unity to deliver the national interest.”
The Labour leader, who only learned of the offer from Mrs May’s speech, said he was “very happy to meet the Prime Minister”. Talks could begin as early as this morning.
“I don’t want to set any limits, one way or the other, ahead of those meetings,” Mr Corbyn said. “We recognise that she has made a move.”
He made clear that Labour’s demands for a customs union with the EU, as well as continued protection for consumer, environmental and workers’ rights would form part of talks. However, Mr Corbyn made no mention of a so-called People’s Vote. Cabinet ministers met for seven hours in Downing Street to thrash out the offer to Labour.
It is understood at least four Cabinet ministers opposed a long Brexit delay, including Brexiteers Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom, but Mrs May’s official spokesman said Cabinet had reached a collective decision. A Cabinet source told The Scotsman that any resignations over the outcome of the national unity process “depends where they think their best leadership prospects lie”.
Brexiteers reacted furiously, with Jacob Rees-Mogg accusing the Prime Minister of working with “a known Marxist” and warning the public “did not vote for a Corbyn-May coalition Government”.
Ministers began talks in a ‘political cabinet’ meeting that began at 9:30am and ran until 1:30pm. After a brief working lunch of sandwiches and tea, a formal Cabinet meeting began around 2pm, which did not end until after 4pm.
Ministers gave up their phones in the morning and all but one remained out of contact until the Prime Minister’s statement, to ensure she delivered the message rather than it leaking out.
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The Cabinet were offered wine while they waited in Downing Street for nearly an hour for Mrs May’s statement to be written. The Prime Minister said any compromise with Labour must be based on the Government’s withdrawal agreement, which sets out the UK’s ‘divorce’ terms from the EU and which has been defeated by MPs three times.
The political declaration, which is not in itself legally binding but is linked to the withdrawal agreement and acts as a blueprint for the future trade and security partnership with the EU, could be rewritten based on cross-party talks.“Today I’m taking action to break the logjam,” Mrs May said. “I’m offering to sit down with the leader of the opposition and try to agree a plan that we would both stick to, to ensure we leave the EU and we do so with a deal.”
If the two parties fail to reach a consensus, then the Government will put a series of options before MPs on the future relationship. Mrs May made clear the Government “stands ready to abide by the decision of the House”.
The process must move quickly to come up with a plan that can pass the Commons before a Brussels summit on 10 April, where EU leaders must unanimously agree any extension.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and French president Emmanuel Macron yesterday both warned an extension would not be granted without a clear purpose.
Mrs May said she would seek a flexible delay that is “as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal”.
But despite the Prime Minister’s insistence that voters shouldn’t be asked to elect new MEPs, a Number 10 source conceded that preparations for EU elections on 23 May would go ahead in case a deal isn’t ratified by then.
The source said ministers discussed the option of a general election, but “there was not a great deal of enthusiasm at this point”. Following a second round of indicative votes on alternative Brexit proposals that failed to produce a clear outcome on Tuesday, MPs sought to force the Government into a Brexit delay with emergency legislation.
The bill put forward by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin could be pushed through all four stages of scrutiny in the Commons this evening, with Lords approval taking place tomorrow. “We are waiting to find out further details on how the Government’s proposed process will work, including how decisions will be taken about the length and purpose of an extension, and how indicative votes will work to make sure we don’t just end up with no deal,” Ms Cooper said.
Nicola Sturgeon tweeted the Prime Minister was “kicking the can” and the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the announcement was confirmation that “Scotland has been utterly ignored”.