Theresa May has finally made a decision. And it’s not one her hard-Brexit allies will like.
The Prime Minister has recognized what many have been saying for weeks – that there’s no majority for her deal in Parliament.
In offering talks with the opposition Labour Party – and, crucially, offering to accept the result of any vote in Parliament for an alternative Brexit plan – May has also recognized that she will never be able to persuade her supposed allies in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, nor a hard core of Brexiteers in her own Conservative Party.
May has picked a side, and in agreeing to a cross-party approach, it’s the side of a “soft” Brexit – one that envisages a closer relationship with the EU than she previously could countenance.
“This is a difficult time for everyone. Passions are running high on all sides of the argument. But we can and must find the compromises that will deliver what the British people voted for,” May said.
That’s a sign that she’s about to rub out at least some of her infamous “red lines” which shaped the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU – out of the Customs Union, which stops the UK signing independent trade deals, and out of the Single Market, which requires the UK to accept unlimited immigration from the EU.
“This is a decisive moment in the story of these islands and it requires national unity to deliver the national interest,” she said. British constitutional nerds will note the historical nod to the “government of national unity” that Winston Churchill led during the Second World War.
For some, the moment reached by May today has always felt inevitable. With no majority in the House of Commons and her own party so bitterly divided, it was always a possibility that Theresa May was going to have to reach across the political divide.
It should never be forgotten that this is a Prime Minister who supported Remain in the 2016 referendum. Brexiteers long ago suspected that her commitment to Brexit was more of an act. Even as recently and last week, some close to the PM were trying to brief that she privately favored no deal. But no one who has followed May properly for the last three years bought it.
The political will in the UK is to avoid a no-deal Brexit. The same is true, largely, across Europe.
So her pledge to seek a short extension to the Brexit process, and a compromise in favor of what will likely be a softer Brexit, bows to the political winds. But the war it might start in the Conservative Party could be terminal. A soft Brexit and an offer to work with the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, a man many Conservatives believe to be a risk to national security?
The fallout from May’s decision is starting to play out. On Wednesday morning, a junior government whip, Nigel Adams, resigned, saying May’s overtures to Corbyn are a “grave error.”
May’s former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, fired a warning short, saying that it was “disappointing” that the final stages of Brexit have been handed to Corbyn. Her former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, claims that as many as 20 Conservative MPs would vote to bring down the government.
These are unprecedented times in politics and people are behaving very unpredictably. The Conservative Party looks ready to eat itself alive.
May has already said she will step down once the first phase of Brexit has been delivered. But what a mess she could leave behind her.