World / Politics

In day of U-turns, Theresa May considers delaying Brexit while Labour's Corbyn backs second referendum

Bloomberg

Theresa May is considering a plan to delay Brexit and stop the U.K. leaving the European Union with no deal next month, according to people familiar with the situation.

The prime minister is expected to allow her Cabinet to discuss extending the deadline beyond March 29 at a crunch meeting on Tuesday, one of the people said. May would then reveal the Cabinet’s conclusions in an announcement to Parliament later in the day.

While no final decision has been taken, putting off the U.K.’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU would be a huge political gamble. On one hand, it would avert mass resignations from pro-EU ministers in May’s team. But it would also risk a destabilizing backlash from euroskeptic Conservatives.

Even with the premier likely to carry on with her attempts to get a deal done on time, a postponement would be a major climbdown for the U.K. leader, who has spent the past two years insisting that the U.K. will leave the EU on schedule. It comes within hours of another major U-turn: that of opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn deciding to back a second Brexit referendum.

Corbyn, who bowed to pressure from his members of Parliament and agreed to support a new Brexit referendum, is a lifelong opponent of the U.K.’s European Union membership and has until now resisted attempts to get him to back a fresh vote on leaving the bloc — even though it is the policy the party agreed to last year. But nine lawmakers quit Labour last week in protest at his leadership, and there were reports that others might go unless he changed course.

After a meeting with members of his shadow Cabinet on Monday afternoon, the Labour leader finally gave way.

“One way or another, we will do everything in our power to prevent no-deal and oppose a damaging Tory Brexit based on Theresa May’s overwhelmingly rejected deal,” Corbyn told a meeting of Labour MPs on Monday evening, according to his office.

“That’s why, in line with our conference policy, we are committed to also putting forward or supporting an amendment in favor of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country.”

In just over a month, the U.K. is meant to be departing the union it’s belonged to for 40 years but the outlook has never looked more uncertain. May’s hands are increasingly tied by an unpopular divorce deal she sealed with the EU but that Parliament has rejected by a landslide. Brexit has proved to be such a divisive issue that both mainstream parties have suffered defections, businesses are panicking and voters are confused and exasperated.

Corbyn’s U-turn — he has long resisted pressure to back a second plebiscite — comes as the U.K. is in the throes of political crisis. It’s unclear when Labour will even get a chance to show this support. There will be votes on Wednesday on the direction of Brexit, but no amendments have been presented yet.

It’s not clear what kind of referendum Labour proposes. While the party’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry said it would be a choice between leaving the EU with a negotiated deal or staying in, a person familiar with Corbyn’s position said this hadn’t been decided. But even with Labour’s support, another referendum is far from certain to happen.

Even if all 246 Labour MPs voted for one — along with the 65 other opposition MPs who might back one, and around 10 members of May’s Conservative party — they would only just have a majority. In reality, at least 25 Labour MPs would disobey any instruction to vote for a referendum. When Corbyn set the policy out to MPs in a private meeting, at least one could be heard angrily denouncing it.

A repeat of the referendum is only likely to happen if a significant number of Tories back one. That’s the idea behind a suggestion by Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson — that they should offer to vote for May’s Brexit deal in exchange for her agreeing to a referendum on it.

Delaying Brexit has the potential to split May’s Cabinet and her ruling party, triggering a rebellion from Brexit-supporting Tories who might even try to bring down her government.

But May’s allies accept she has run out of time and must now choose between angering her pro-Brexit colleagues and alienating as many as 20 pro-European ministers who are threatening to quit to vote against her and stop a no-deal exit from the EU in Parliament on Wednesday.

May will chair a Cabinet discussion on extending Brexit at 9:30 a.m. in London on Tuesday.

May will update Parliament on the Cabinet’s decision after 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

The government will propose a motion on the Brexit state-of-play by Tuesday night.

The House of Commons will debate and vote on May’s Brexit motion on Wednesday.

A political bust-up is certain to follow.

If she doesn’t find a way to remove the threat of a no-deal departure next month, May is likely to suffer a spate of resignations. Cabinet ministers including Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and Business Secretary David Gauke have signaled they will quit rather than be part of a government that takes the U.K. out of the EU with no deal.

If she does back a delay, May’s pro-Brexit colleagues will accuse her of betrayal and could even support a vote of no confidence in the government — potentially triggering a general election.

May returned on Monday night from an EU summit in Egypt where one EU leader after another asked her whether she would delay Brexit. EU Council President Donald Tusk said it was the “rational” thing to do.

May would have to ask the EU for an extension, and the bloc would probably say yes. What’s less certain is whether they would agree to a short delay, or force her into a longer one that would be even more politically toxic at home.