By Lucy Thomas, Will Walden and Pawel Swidlicki in London Public Affairs
After a mammoth 7-hour Cabinet meeting, Theresa May has called for “national unity in the national interest”, offering an olive branch to Jeremy Corbyn, asking him to help her find a solution to the Brexit impasse.
She will also seek an extension of Article 50 when she meets EU leaders next week, ruling out leaving with No Deal. She suggested 22 May would be the aim of such an extension in order to avoid European Elections.
It has yet to be seen whether Cabinet agree with this approach, as they were locked in No 10 all day without their phones, unable to leak to the outside world. We do know that 14 Cabinet members voted against an extension and 10 in favour. Expect fireworks still to come.
What has happened?
In a statement following a Cabinet session lasting over seven hours, Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a joint Conservative and Labour approach to the way forward on Brexit. She offered to sit down with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to find a future Brexit relationship that both would agree to.
Jeremy Corbyn has responded in his most conciliatory tones to date, saying he’s “very happy” to meet the Prime Minister and did not want to “set any limits” ahead of the talks. He reminded the Prime Minister of Labour’s support for a customs union and “access to vital markets”, an updated phrase than the usual – and more controversial for some – ‘single market’. An early sign of willingness to compromise perhaps.
If they cannot agree on a joint Conservative and Labour approach, the Government will propose a series of options which MPs will vote on and that Government would agree to follow – unlike previous ‘indicative votes’.
Mrs May also ruled out No Deal, saying that she would seek an extension to Article 50 when she meets EU leaders at next week’s emergency European Council summit. Her shock move comes after MPs again looked poised to seize control of the parliamentary agenda tomorrow to pass legislation designed to force her to seek an extension beyond 12 April.
If that extension were granted then the Withdrawal Agreement would still need to be passed by the Commons in order for any of these negotiated approaches to be implemented during phase two of the process – agreeing the shape of our future trade relationship with the EU.
In order to avoid the UK taking part in European Elections, the deal would have to be signed off by MPs before 12 April and the legislation implementing the Withdrawal Agreement must be passed before 22 May.
Cabinet ministers are likely to be highly divided but as of yet none of them formally commented. It was reported that 14 were against an extension, 10 in favour.
Why does it matter?
This is effectively the Prime Minister indicating that she is prepared to back a softer version of Brexit if MPs can unite around that, a move that will enrage those on the hard Brexit wing of the party. This in turn could lead to Cabinet resignations and a significant schism in the Conservative Party.
The Prime Minister has been unwilling to choose a side to date, preferring for Parliament to try to find a softer version of Brexit which she could pit against her deal, but in the absence of this, she has been forced to contemplate having to offer one herself.
Corbyn’s response showed a willingness to talk and to approach the dialogue with an open mind, taking the politics out of what has so-far been a highly fractious process.
Labour have so far voted against her Brexit deal citing concerns over her vision for the future UK-EU relationship even though the party accepts the Withdrawal Agreement element of it in principle if not in practice.
The DUP have also indicated they might back a softer deal if it meant getting rid of the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement, but it is not clear whether this would happen and therefore they may still vote against it.
What has been clear from the numbers to date is that without a Conservative-DUP majority, support would have to be found from Labour and this is a serious admission of that fact.
What happens next?
The two leaders will meet and see if common ground can be found
If agreement is reached on a way forward, that future Brexit trading relationship will be put to MPs first and, if passed, to the EU next week.
If no Conservative-Labour agreement can be found, a series of Brexit options will be put to MPs by the Government.
Unlike previous ‘indicative votes’, the Government will agree to follow these outcomes, even if they point towards a softer Brexit.
The Prime Minister will ask for an extension of Article 50 to 22 May, hoping that the Withdrawal Agreement can be agreed by then.