5 ways Corbyn can test how serious May is about Brexit talks

by Hugo Dixon | 03.04.2019

Despite her statement last night, it remains doubtful whether Theresa May is serious about doing a deal with Jeremy Corbyn or, failing that, submitting to the will of Parliament. Even if she is, can she deliver? Here are five things Corbyn should test out.

Commit May to an extension

The priority is to ask whether her Cabinet is committed to asking for an extension and, if so, for how long. The prime minister’s words last night were ambiguous. At the very least, she must commit to asking for long extension with the possibility to cut it short if a deal is done earlier. Otherwise, we face a serious risk of crashing out if – as is all too likely – the process she wants to set up falls apart.

See what May can deliver

Corbyn should then test how May plans to deliver anything the two of them agreed. Would she whip in favour of it? Most of her ministers and MPs don’t want a soft Brexit. And now she has said she’ll step down if her deal gets through, how will she stop her successor ripping up anything agreed?

May will struggle to give any meaningful assurances on delivering a soft Brexit. It is also a mistake to try to agree a soft Brexit in the next 72 hours when so little of the detail has been filled in – including properly testing whether it is deliverable with the EU 27. It would therefore be wise to take a different approach.

Put more meat on the bones

Corbyn must see whether May will agree a process to flesh out what our real alternatives are.

One idea is that the prime minister could negotiate two new draft political declarations with the EU – one based on customs union and the other based on Common Market 2.0 – and then bring these viable options back to the Commons. MPs could then decide whether to back either of these and whether or not to put them (or indeed her own deal) to the people.

This would be the grown-up thing to do – and would take seriously the indicative votes which showed strong support for customs union, Common Market 2.0 and a confirmatory vote.

If May is unwilling to do this, Corbyn could see if she wants to propose her own deal subject to a confirmatory referendum. If she is – and the chances are slim – he could agree to back it.

See how May’s ‘run-off’ idea would work

If they reach an impasse, the two party leaders need to discuss May’s idea of then finding “a number of options for the Future Relationship that we could put to [Parliament] in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue”.

Corbyn will want to see if May has any specific ideas about how it should work, for example:

  • How many options would be in the run-off?
  • Who would choose the options?
  • What specific option(s) of her own will she put in the run-off?
  • Will there be any restrictions on motions put in the run-off – for example, excluding confirmatory votes or insisting that the motions were deliverable?
  • Will she whip in favour or against any of the options – and will the Cabinet be free to vote how they wish?
  • If there are two options, how will the winner be judged – on the basis of the most number of positive votes, the largest majority, smallest negative majority or what?
  • If there are more than two options, what voting system will be used?
  • Might there be more than one round of voting? If so, how would that work?
  • Would she be committed to implement anything MPs decided – and is her Cabinet committed too?

Even to entertain such a process, Corbyn should insist that any option has to be deliverable – and that the Cabinet should be willing to implement anything that comes out of the process. If and only if she agrees to this, it would probably be best to design a simple process: a binary choice between two motions – one put by the prime minister and the other put by Corbyn.

If May agrees this, Corbyn should insist on first seeing the motion she plans to put to MPs before taking things further. He should then consult with MPs across Parliament before determining the motion that he would pick. He could seek to construct a broad compromise motion that takes the process forward in a mature fashion – perhaps along the following lines:

“This House instructs the government to negotiate two new draft political declarations – one for customs union, the other for Common Market 2.0 – and bring them back to the Commons. MPs will then decide whether to support either of these and, if so, whether to put them (or the government’s deal) to the people.”

If MPs votes for this and the prime minister then implements it, that would be a good outcome.

Look responsible

Unfortunately, the chances of all this happening are small. May just won’t be serious enough about the process.

But if Corbyn engages in this way, he will have shown himself to have behaved responsibly. What’s more, Parliament may end up forcing the prime minister to do something like this anyway by a mixture of Yvette Cooper’s bill, which is being voted on by MPs today, and further indicative votes.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “5 ways Corbyn can test how serious May is about Brexit talks”

  • In all this talk about customs union or Common Market.2, we all seem to be pointing to a rule taker without being rule maker. Surely a long delay is needed for a people’s vote on the the true options: 1, revoking Article 50 or 2. a genuine taking back of control by negotiating (in the time it takes) all the agreements needed for complete separation (visas, citizens’ status, tariffs…). The May deal is simply a tailored period to do just that – it does presume us finally leaving.

  • To any sane thinking person it is blatantly obvious that trying to agree a good Brexit deal (ie a Withdrawal Agreement) is like putting a square peg in a round hole or like pushing string uphill. Its just mission impossible.
    Tom Cruse might like to challenge that theory though.
    Of course any two parties can come together, change their red lines and compromise. The question is ‘Compromise on what?’
    Provided that any politician is adequately educated in simple business and trading theory he or she would very quickly understand that remaining a member of the EU is the best deal. Anything else is simly just like shooting yourself in the foot or cutting off your nose despite your face.
    By remaining the compromise with the EU is about pooling and sharing for the benefit of trade and workers rights, etc.
    Therefore all grades of doing a Brexit deal is nothing more than agreeing your damage limitation exercise.
    Remember the ‘bullet is already in the foot’ and you’re looking for a way out.
    The Brexiter will tell you he can use a chain saw to take your foot off, the remainer is saying that there’s a hospital around the corner and the doctors will fix it right away!
    Perhaps this really is too complicated for some people?

  • The maintenance of an open border between the two parts of Ireland must be a key objective. It should not be forgotten that Ireland is not a binary state at the level of social and cultural activites: there are unified sporting teams representing the country as a whole, the churches are organised mainly on a 32 county basis, agricultural and environmental regulations are unified and should remain so, car insurance and driving licences are mutually recognised. The integrity of the island must be a sine qua non of any Corbyn/May deal despite the maverick claims of the DUP and maverick and divisive Malthouse compromises of the -Brexiteers.