(Bloomberg) — Senior British ministers are said to be urging Theresa May to seek help from her arch rival — socialist Jeremy Corbyn — if Parliament kills her Brexit deal in a crunch vote next week.
A group of mainly pro-European ministers want May to invite the opposition Labour party leader to meet her for negotiations in the hope of agreeing a joint plan, according to people familiar with the matter.
May will ask Parliament to approve the divorce terms she’s negotiated with the European Union on Jan. 15. The problem she faces is that her Conservative party has no overall majority in the House of Commons and scores of her own members hate the deal she’s struck with the EU and have vowed to oppose it.
The prime minister has already pushed the crucial vote on ratifying the Brexit package back by a month in a bid to win people over. The tactical delay seems to have failed and May now looks set for a decisive defeat. The question is what she should do next.
If Parliament fails to agree on the terms of the divorce, Britain will be on course to lurch out of the 28-country bloc on March 29 without any new trading arrangement in place. According to official analysis, such a chaotic split could see the pound fall as much as 25 percent and hit house prices by as much as 30 percent, risking a recession.
While Brexit-backers argue that May should go back to the EU and renegotiate the most contentious parts of the deal, most other members of Parliament say this would be a pointless request to which Brussels would never agree.
Instead, six Cabinet ministers and two other ministers want May to find the votes she needs to get her exit deal through Parliament from the official opposition Labour party, according to people familiar with the matter.
Two ministers — speaking on condition of anonymity — said May should make a formal direct approach to Corbyn himself.
Another possibility being discussed by members of May’s government is the idea of allowing Parliament to vote on different Brexit options, to test which has support. The idea was first floated in December.
Both that idea and the option of talks with the opposition raise the possibility of a significantly softer Brexit. May has promised to take the U.K. out of the EU’s single market and customs union, but these red lines could be eroded if her plan dies.
What Labour Wants
Corbyn’s Labour party, meanwhile, wants a full, permanent customs union with the EU, something that would appall many pro-Brexit Tories.
If May doesn’t make a move toward Labour, she will find that individual members of Parliament will do so for her, according to one Tory, speaking privately. This week has already seen cross-party moves to thwart her preparations for a no-deal Brexit, as Parliament increasingly flexes its muscle.
“If the prime minister’s deal doesn’t succeed in obtaining a majority despite the support of people like me, then we are very clearly going to have to find a means of reaching a cross-party majority for a sensible solution,” said Oliver Letwin, an influential Conservative who this week rebelled against May in an attempt to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
Nicky Morgan, Tory chair of Parliament’s Treasury Committee, agreed. “Brexit should not be a party-political issue,” she said. “We’ve got to do it on a cross-party basis and that means reaching a compromise in Parliament.”
May has until this year resisted calls to work with the opposition. A lifelong Tory, her negotiating style has tended to favor stubbornness over consensus-building. On Jan. 9 Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said he was surprised he hadn’t received any approaches at all from the government to start talks.
But this week May has held meetings with some junior Labour politicians and with a cross-party group, although she’s stopped short of working with Corbyn himself.
While difficult for May, an invitation to Corbyn would also be a challenge to the Labour leader. He would have to decide whether to work with his sworn enemies in the Tory government to deliver the kind of Brexit he says he wants, or to push for a general election even if that risks economic ruin and the jobs his party has vowed to protect.
–With assistance from Thomas Penny and Jessica Shankleman.
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