May and Corbyn to hold talks in effort to break Brexit ‘logjam’
Brexit is set to be delayed again as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn attempt to find a way out of the Commons impasse over how to leave the European Union.
The Prime Minister said she would seek an extension beyond the current April 12 Brexit day to allow talks with Mr Corbyn aimed at ensuring the UK leaves the European Union “in a timely and orderly way”.
She said the offer to the Labour was an attempt to “break the logjam” after MPs rejected her Withdrawal Agreement three times and failed to back any of the alternative proposals considered so far.
Mr Corbyn said he would be “very happy” to meet the Prime Minister in a bid to offer “certainty and security” to the British people.
Speaking in 10 Downing Street after a marathon session of Cabinet lasting over seven hours – which was described as “divisive” and “tense” by one source – Mrs May said that any further delay to Brexit should be “as short as possible”.
A bill to pave the way for departure would have to be in place by May 22 to ensure the UK did not have to take part in European Parliament elections.
Any new proposal would have to accept the Withdrawal Agreement – including its controversial backstop arrangement – and focus on amendments to the Political Declaration on the future EU-UK relationship, she said.
Making her offer to Mr Corbyn she said the “ideal outcome” would be to agree an approach to the future relationship that both leaders could back and which she could then take to her 27 EU counterparts at a summit next week.
If that was impossible, then the two leaders could instead propose a “number of options” for the future relationship which would be put to a series of votes in the Commons.
“Crucially, the Government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House,” she said.
“But to make this process work, the Opposition would need to agree to this too.”
She added: “This is a decisive moment in the story of these islands and it will require national unity to deliver the national interest.”
Agreeing to the meeting, Mr Corbyn said: “I recognise my responsibility to represent the people that supported Labour in the last election and the people who didn’t support Labour but nevertheless want certainty and security for their own future.”
He said he would not set any “limits” ahead of the meeting with the Prime Minister and warned that Labour would “hold in reserve” the option of tabling a confidence motion in the Government if it “proves it is incapable of commanding a majority in the House of Commons”.
Mrs May’s “red lines” include making sure the UK is out of the customs union and she has also ruled out a second referendum, but a Number 10 source said “unless there is compromise on both sides, it is unlikely we can find a way forward”.
If the European Council proposes an extension beyond May 22, it is understood that it would be possible for the UK to take the steps necessary to prepare for European Parliament elections on May 23, but then cancel them at the last minute if the withdrawal deal was ratified.
Ministers began their Cabinet meeting at 9.30am, initially sitting without civil servants, and the gathering finally wound up at 5pm.
One source said Cabinet ministers were split 14-10 against asking for a long extension to the Brexit process.
But a second Cabinet source said ministers spoke 17-4 in favour of the limited extension sought by the Prime Minister, with just Gavin Williamson, Penny Mordaunt, Chris Grayling and Liz Truss opposed to the measure.
The source said: “This is a pragmatic way forward. PM clear that we won’t leave with no deal in April.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond is understood to have suggested a general election or second referendum could be required to break the Brexit deadlock.
A Number 10 source confirmed the option of a general election was discussed at the meeting but “there was not a great deal of enthusiasm” and “it was agreed it wouldn’t be the right thing to do”.
The source characterised the political cabinet meeting as “a wide-ranging and constructive discussion”.
Eurosceptic Tories were furious, with Jacob Rees-Mogg describing the offer to Mr Corbyn as “deeply unsatisfactory” and accused Mrs May of planning to collaborate with “a known Marxist”.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said: “It is very disappointing that the cabinet has decided to entrust the final handling of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.”
Any extension would have to be approved by the EU’s 27 leaders at a European Council summit next week.
In an instant response, European Council president Donald Tusk said: “Even if, after today, we don’t know what the end result will be, let us be patient.”
Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron said Mrs May would have to present a “credible alternative plan backed by a majority” at next week’s summit in order to secure an extension.
The EU could not become “the hostage to the solution to a political crisis in the UK”, said the French president.
A cross-party group of senior MPs led by Yvette Cooper and Tory Sir Olver Letwin has launched a parliamentary bid to prevent a no-deal departure by tabling a bill requiring the Prime Minister to extend the negotiation process beyond April 12.
Responding to the PM’s “welcome” statement Ms Cooper said: “We are waiting to find out further details on how the Government’s proposed process will work, including how decisions will be taken about the length and purpose of an extension, and how indicative votes will work to make sure we don’t just end up with no deal a bit later on”.