POLITICS
02/04/2019 23:42 BST | Updated 03/04/2019 07:06 BST

Theresa May Finally Tries To Break Free Of Her Brexiteer Prison. But Will Jeremy Corbyn Help Her Escape?

The PM's pivot came very late. She's now braced for backbench fury over 'betrayal'.

The process was tortuous, the delivery wooden and the wording typically opaque. But with her latest No10 statement, Theresa May seems to have finally decided she no longer wants to be held captive by her party’s Brexiteers.

Ever since she first uttered the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ slogan to win herself the Tory leadership back in 2016, the prime minister has developed the political equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.

The psychological alliance with her captors became her survival strategy, and got even worse after her first bid for freedom - the disastrous 2017 snap election - backfired badly.

Now, after months of trying to placate the hardline Eurosceptics and her DUP partners, May has concluded she has no choice but to pivot towards Labour and towards ‘the will of the Commons’.

Her epiphany, forced on her by an assertive Parliament, has involved the realisation that she will go down in history as a failed premier unless she can deliver the very task that got her the job in the first place. 

It could involve a much ‘softer’ Brexit than much of her party want. Yet she appears to have, at the eleventh hour, accepted that even that’s better than leaving office with no Brexit at all.

The longest day of May’s long walk away from her troublesome backbenchers began at 9.30am, as she convened a three-hour ‘political’ meeting of her Cabinet.

Most of the discussion covered the issue of whether a general election was one way out of the parliamentary deadlock.

The focus groups and polling showed that a ‘clean Brexit’ was popular among many, but they also laid bare the real risks of a Corbyn minority government. Several marginal seats could be lost and power handed to Labour.

“There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for a general election at this point,” one Downing Street source said, with classic British understatement. “It was agreed it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

Yet the key moment, according to one present, came when Brexiteers Geoffrey Cox and Michael Gove suggested it was time for a “different” approach to end the deadlock in the Commons. Their words laid the ground for May’s switch in strategy later.

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Michael Gove

With fear of a Corbyn premiership established as a key factor, the task of the ‘formal’ Cabinet meeting that followed after lunch was to either bind the Labour leader to a joint enterprise on Brexit - or at least work with him to allow MPs to make the final call.

Corbyn is expected to refuse to sign a common deal when he meets the PM for crunch talks. He may however agree to a series of ‘run-off’ votes to find out just how ‘soft’ MPs wanted the UK’s exit from the EU.

May’s Brexit could be tested one final time against Labour’s plan for a permanent customs union and even closer ‘regulatory alignment’ with Brussels.

Significantly, even the option of a second referendum is not off the table in the government-sanctioned votes.

One insider said that the one key red line that remained in place was May would never agree to ‘revocation’ of Article 50, the nuclear button that would halt Brexit itself. But all other options seem open. “We are approaching these talks in a constructive spirit,” is how a No.10 spokesman put it.

During the Cabinet meeting, Chancellor Philip Hammond floated the idea of a referendum as one way to heal the country. His deputy at the Treasury, Liz Truss, clashed with her boss repeatedly, sources said.

At one point, she even demanded new economic assessments of the costs and benefits of staying in the EU. Hammond drily noted that such a move would be pointless as the figures were well known.

Truss was among the three Cabinet refuseniks who also disagreed on the PM’s new timetable  - for a short, extra delay in Brexit to May 22 - to give the Corbyn talks and process a chance of working. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, opposed the idea too.

There was however substantial opposition to a longer delay to Brexit, with a majority against the idea. But overall, she won her battle to at least allow her to pitch to Labour for support.

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Boris Johnson

“Some of us have felt for a long time that a hard Brexit’s high water mark has passed,” one minister said. “And we’ve been desperate for her to take on the [Steve] Bakers and the Rees-Moggs. I’m just glad she got there in the end.”

After eight hours, with a 30 minute ‘working lunch’ of sandwiches, the Cabinet finally agreed that making the twin-track offer to Corbyn was the way forward. Concerns were noted, but “collective agreement was reached”, No.10 said.

As May went off to draft the exact wording of her televised statement, glasses of Chilean red wine were sipped by ministers who stayed in Downing Street to avoid any media scrums or leaks beforehand. For about an hour, they too looked like prisoners in No.10.

Gove was deployed on the airwaves to calm the restless backbench troops, but the expected backlash from Brexiteers was still swift.  The European Research Group (ERG)’s Jacob Rees-Mogg declared it was “unwise” to rely on “socialists” rather than the Tory party.  Boris Johnson warned that agreeing to Labour’s plans would mean “Brexit is becoming soft to the point of disintegration”.

There remain huge risks for May, not least the fact that her own MPs voted by six to one against Ken Clarke’s mild form of soft Brexit, the customs union, only this week. The European elections will have to be prepared for, possibly at needless cost to the taxpayer, if May’s deal succeeds.

But having already told her party she would be quitting if she could get her ‘divorce deal’ done, and having survived a Tory confidence vote in December, May can be forgiven for thinking she has nothing left to lose.

The DUP has signalled their unbudging line on her proposals and those Brexiteer ministers who haven’t yet quit the government were not expected to  come out in large numbers and resign.

The big question is just what Jeremy Corbyn does next. May’s gamble is that he has a common interest in delivering Brexit to avoid upsetting his own Leave voters in Labour heartlands. She is probably hoping too that she can help him out of his referendum dilemma by showing once again the Commons won’t back a ‘People’s Vote’.

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Jeremy Corbyn reacts to the statement

In his initial response, Corbyn didn’t mention a second referendum at all. Instead, he stressed that his priority was that “we don’t crash out” of the EU without a deal. The risk is that ‘enabling’ Brexit, even a softer one, could spark a revolt among Labour’s grassroots.

Corbyn also played down the idea of triggering a general election, though adding “we hold in reserve our right to bring a motion of no confidence, time will tell”.

Some Labour aides were privately scathing about May’s decision to woo the Opposition with promises about the future political declaration. With her departure all but certain in a few months, the risk is that anything Corbyn signs up to something that will be torn up by a Boris Johnson or other Tory leader.

A Downing Street spokesman insisted: “There is a legal link between the Withdrawal Agreement and the political declaration.” That is the opposite of the message May gave Corbyn privately on the phone only last week, when she wanted him to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, separately from the future trade talks, the Labour source said. Team Corbyn are wary of walking into a trap, but know that they have to rise to the occasion too.

As for Brussels, many in No.10 think the EU will be helpful, despite French President Emmanuel Macron warning on Tuesday that “the European Union cannot forever be hostage to the resolution of a political crisis in the United Kingdom”.

The truth is that it is the British PM who is ready to pay a serious ransom to get out of her Brexit hole. The real risk is that she has swapped one set of captors for another: Tory Brexiteers and the DUP replaced by Corbyn’s Labour.

If Corbyn sets too high a price, he knows the next stop may indeed be a general election. And furious Conservatives could well counter May’s ‘betrayal’ with an unholy alliance of their own: joining Corbyn in voting no confidence in their government.