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Theresa May’s New Brexit Strategy Is Fraught With Political Risk

Posted by hkarner - 4. April 2019

Date: 03-04-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Ahead of meeting between the prime minister and opposition leader, both parties wonder if detente represents an opportunity or a trap

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are meeting to try to find a route out of the Brexit impasse.

LONDON—British Prime Minister Theresa May and the leader of the opposition
Labour Party began the process of hashing out a compromise Brexit deal Wednesday, a path fraught with political risk for both sides.

With a summit of European Union leaders just a week away, pressure is on the British government to find a Brexit agreement that can gain Parliament’s approval and avoid the U.K. leaving the bloc without a deal on April 12.

To do this, Mrs. May has shifted strategy. On Tuesday, she announced she would reach out to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, after her repeated failure to persuade a core of anti-EU lawmakers in her own Conservative Party, and her allies from the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, to vote for the deal she negotiated.

The shift marks the end to the monthslong Groundhog Day-style efforts to push the House of Commons to back the deal, and signals the prime minister will be willing to keep the U.K. close to the EU after Brexit to get her agreement over the line.

Mrs. May made clear she wants a further delay to Brexit but she needs to show EU leaders that Parliament can coalesce around some form of Brexit deal to justify the extension.

She is scheduled to have a one-hour meeting on Wednesday with Mr. Corbyn, who welcomed “her willingness to compromise to find a way out of the Brexit deadlock.”

Given the deep ideological divisions between the two parties, however, the likeliest outcome is that the talks stall and the government ends up putting a series of Brexit options back to lawmakers. Mrs. May has promised to respect the result of those votes. “I approach this in a constructive spirit,” Mrs. May told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Ahead of the talks, both sides were trying to work out whether the detente represents an opportunity or a trap. For Mrs. May, it offers an avenue to deliver Brexit. For Mr. Corbyn, it can get Brexit off the agenda and swing the political debate toward inequality and public services, his favored topics.

The two leaders have little in common. Every Wednesday they harangue each other across the House of Commons. Mrs. May, a prim, Conservative stalwart, contrasts starkly with Mr. Corbyn, a disheveled, socialist radical. But both leaders are fighting internal battles to stop their respective parties from splintering over Brexit.

Mrs. May had, until this week, prioritized keeping her own party together, trying to appease a hard-core of strongly anti-EU lawmakers who have consistently voted against her deal because they say it keeps the U.K. too close to the EU.

Mr. Corbyn is also torn. A left-wing euroskeptic himself, he presides over a party with a majority of members who are strongly pro-EU and pushing for a second Brexit referendum and a group of lawmakers from districts that voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. His approach so far had been to keep his hands clean by letting the Conservatives take responsibility for Brexit.

Many of his lawmakers are fearful of falling into a Conservative trap of helping Mrs. May get her deal over the line by agreeing to a plan with the EU to keep the U.K. close to the bloc after Brexit, only for a future Conservative prime minister to tear it up.

That would be possible because Mrs. May’s deal contains two elements—a legally binding withdrawal agreement on divorce issues such as a financial settlement the U.K. will make to the EU, and a political declaration outlining future ties. The political declaration isn’t legally binding.

If Mr. Corbyn does agree to cooperate, he is likely to push at least to keep the U.K. inside the EU’s customs union after Brexit and following many of its single-market rules.

If Mrs. May agrees to that, she stands to increase opposition among her own lawmakers to the deal. For them, being inside the customs union means following EU tariffs and prevents the U.K. from signing trade deals with countries outside the bloc, such as the U.S.

Already on Wednesday, tensions were on show. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said that he personally didn’t favor staying in the EU’s customs union or a second referendum. But he said he was willing to listen during the talks, which he is set to attend.

“The alternative to that is potentially no Brexit at all,” he said.

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