Theresa May, U.K. prime ministeR. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

May Courts Corbyn as She Plays for Time to Get a Brexit Deal

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May is seeking to buy time to renegotiate her Brexit agreement as her opponents in Parliament plot to take control to stop the U.K. plunging out of the European Union with no deal.

The prime minister sent a conciliatory letter to opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn on Sunday, offering further talks, after he threatened to set her a new deadline of Feb. 26 for winning politicians’ backing for her plan.

Members on all sides of the House of Commons are concerned that May is deliberately running down the clock to Britain’s scheduled exit day on March 29, risking a potentially disastrous no-deal divorce.

May Courts Corbyn as She Plays for Time to Get a Brexit Deal

The premier will try to mollify her critics and earn herself another two weeks’ of breathing space, promising Parliament further opportunities to have a say over what happens next if she can’t get a deal.

In just over six weeks the U.K. will leave the EU -- with or without an agreement. May’s draft withdrawal contract was rejected by a huge margin in the Commons last month. No new accord has so far been reached.

Last week May reopened talks with the EU, attempting to change the fallback plan for avoiding a hard Irish border, the so-called backstop.

Limited Scope

But her scope for achieving the kind of wide-ranging re-draft that she needs seems severely limited. EU leaders, including the Irish premier Leo Varadkar, are refusing to water down the backstop guarantee, despite the U.K. parliament calling for the policy to be scrapped.

In her letter to Corbyn, May avoided the usual combative tone that characterizes the exchanges between the two competitors, declaring herself “grateful” to her opponent for meeting her last week and for his offer of further talks to break the deadlock.

She promised to discuss his ideas for keeping closer ties to the EU than she’s proposed, while working together to resolve the contentious Irish backstop.

May questioned Corbyn’s demand for a permanent and comprehensive U.K.-wide customs union with the EU that includes a say in future European trade deals, while stopping short of rejecting it completely. May’s tactic could help win her more time, but it risks enraging pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party who want a clean break with the EU.

The prime minister is aiming to allay politicians’ concern that, unless they vote to take control of the process this week -- and order her to seek an extension of EU negotiations beyond March 29 -- they will have lost their chance to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

Plan B

If, as expected, May doesn’t secure concessions from the EU by Wednesday, Parliament will vote again on plan B options the following day. May aims to ask the House of Commons to restate its demand to remove the backstop clause from the Withdrawal Agreement, according to an official with knowledge of her plans, who asked not to be identified.

She’ll also promise that if she hasn’t brought a renegotiated deal to Parliament by Feb. 27 there’ll be another opportunity for it to vote on what should happen next.

The political wrangling will do little to reassure British business though. Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, told Sky “we really are in the emergency zone of Brexit now” with some businesses already leaving the country. Meanwhile, economists surveyed by Bloomberg said the chance of a U.K. recession in the 12 months has risen to almost one-in-three.

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