May-Corbyn Brexit Talks Are Just a Sign of Exhaustion

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When you hear that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and her Labour Party rival Jeremy Corbyn are in talks, you can safely assume that May has exhausted every other option in her efforts to get a Brexit deal through Parliament. But it’s a measure of the damage wrought by Hurricane Brexit on Britain’s political landscape that even if there were a historic agreement between sworn political enemies this week, it’s likely to be a damp squib.

May has done everything to win political support for an agreement on divorce terms from the European Union that can be accepted by her own Conservative Party. She has tried to run down the clock and to wear down her opponents. She brokered deals among her own ministers that fell apart. She twisted arms, cajoled colleagues and lectured Parliament. Still, her Brexit agreement was rejected by the House of Commons three times.

She has attempted renegotiation with the EU, too. From Salzburg to Brussels, she went into successive summits with demands, threats, promises and, finally, pleas. The EU repeatedly refused to open up the withdrawal agreement it had reached with her.

At last, she looked across the House of Commons and initiated talks with Labour that probably should have been part of the mix from the beginning. Given that the 2016 vote for Brexit revealed a divided nation and two fractured parties, there was no choice but to seek Labour support. May presides (if that’s the word for it) over a minority government in which Brexiters within her own Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Irish party that made up May’s parliamentary majority, oppose her deal.

Corbyn’s interests may be harder to discern. Why bail out a Conservative government that seemed to be doing a fine job of punching itself in the face? At first, he seemed to be going through the motions. And yet voters expect Her Majesty’s government-in-waiting to have a plan too, as Corbyn’s abysmal poll numbers showed (though his party’s troubles with anti-Semitism don’t help either). Recent local elections were another wake-up call: Labour might have expected to be the beneficiary of the Conservative Party’s problems; instead, Labour, too, was a loser.

Labour has astutely shifted its position. It abandoned its impossible-to-pass Brexit tests, and then opposition to a fraught provision of the Brexit agreement that preserves the open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It focused instead on the more reasonable demand of staying in the customs union providing for tariff-free trade.

Talks with May give Corbyn a way of countering accusations of obstructionism. They suggest fidelity to his party’s promise to honor the Brexit vote, while giving Brexit opponents hope for staying in the customs union and aligning with EU rules on workers’ rights and the environment. If the Conservative Party divides and withers as a result, well then that’s a bonus.

It’s hard to overstate how odious the customs union is for Brexiters. Think of the Brexit case as a three-legged stool. There was an argument for controlled immigration, an argument for restoring sovereignty and an argument for control over trade policy, which was meant to deliver the benefits of more advantageous trade deals. Remaining in the customs union would blow out the third leg and weaken the sovereignty argument. While the benefits of having an independent trade policy were always exaggerated, they have become an article of faith among Brexiters and a litmus test on the government’s seriousness on delivering Brexit.

Brexit has fractured the two-party system to such an extent that neither May nor Corbyn can rely on support if an agreement is reached. Some 100 opposition MPs, most of them Labour, have said they won’t support a deal that isn’t put to the public in the form of a referendum.

A similar number of Conservative MPs are already pressing May to name her departure date. The 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs could conceivably decide it’s time to change party rules to allow a second vote of confidence in May (she survived the first one on Dec. 12 and current rules don’t allow another vote until a year later). A recent poll showed that more than four in five Conservative Party members want her to quit; many are flocking to the Brexit Party led by the anti-EU militant Nigel Farage for the May 23 European parliamentary elections.

Reports that May was planning to offer Corbyn a proposal to stay in the customs union only until the next election were quickly shot down. That idea would prolong the uncertainty facing the country and make a mockery of Labour’s demand that the future EU relationship be made clear now (a customs union was always possible within the terms of the nonbinding political declaration reached with the EU, but Labour wants it nailed down before the vote).

And yet, how can Labour know that any longer-term agreement will hold once May has been replaced? It can’t.

Trust between both sides of the House and along the benches of each major party could not be lower; an almost impossible backdrop to reaching a lasting compromise. Britain’s two-party system is gone, at least for now.

One way or another, Parliament will be called upon to do something. One possible scenario is that a Brexiter, perhaps May’s former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, replaces May as Tory leader and threatens to leave the EU without an exit deal at the end of October no matter how disastrous the probable economic consequences. That would extend the parliamentary impasse, leading eventually to new elections.

Avoiding that outcome may be the only thing that keeps May and Corbyn talking. It’s also the one thing keeping both Brexiters and Remainers determined to hold fast to their own uncompromising lines.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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