Theresa May hinted she’s working for a compromise with her domestic political enemies on a post-Brexit customs alliance with the European Union, in a move that would put Britain on course for an even softer divorce.
May faced calls to resign from outraged Brexit-supporters in her Conservative Party after agreeing to a six-month delay to Britain’s departure from the bloc. She then risked further inflaming relations with her own side, insisting it’s vital to work with socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s main opposition Labour Party on a joint Brexit plan, even if this is “uncomfortable”.
“There is actually more agreement in relation to a customs union than it is often given credit for when different language is used,” the Conservative prime minister told the House of Commons on Thursday. “We want to obtain the benefits of a customs union - no tariffs, no rules of origin checks and no quotas - while being able to operate our own independent trade policy.’’ Labour, she added, “has said they want a say in trade policy’.’
May is relying on talks with Labour to find a Brexit agreement that can secure a majority in the House, enabling her to take the UK out of the EU by May 22. That would avoid having to hold elections for the European parliament.
But she’s angered the die-hard Brexiteers in her party who say she should have taken the country out of the EU on March 29, as originally planned. That deadline was extended until April 12 last month after Parliament rejected the divorce agreement she negotiated with the EU.
May secured a second extension to October 31 at a European Council meeting in Brussels that only ended in the early hours of Thursday. The delays - and the talks with Labour - sparked calls for her to quit.
Conservative Brexit-backer Bill Cash asked her in the Commons if she could “appreciate the anger that her abject surrender last night has generated across the country.” He concluded with a blunt question: “Will she resign?”
“I think you know the answer to that,” May replied.
May has been fending off rebels for months now, and in December she won a confidence vote despite being opposed by more than a third of Tory members of Parliament. Under party rules, she’s technically safe from a leadership challenge until the end of the year.
Talking to Corbyn
Discussions with Corbyn’s party resumed on Thursday at the level of officials, and even though the Commons begins an Easter recess this afternoon, are likely to continue over coming days.
“We are having talks in a very positive, constructive atmosphere,” May said. “A first step in bringing this country together is being able to bringing this house together to find a deal so that we can deliver Brexit.”
Corbyn wants Britain to be in a permanent customs union with the EU, while keeping a say over the bloc’s trade policy. May has repeatedly ruled out a customs union because she says it would prevent Britain being able to strike trade deals with other countries around the world, beyond Europe.
May said she has not offered Labour a confirmatory referendum in the talks and insisted putting the question back to voters was not the right way to resolve the impasse.
She said the chaotic Brexit debate that has dominated British politics for months is putting politicians under “immense pressure.” She urged them to take advantage of the Parliamentary recess, which begins on Thursday night, “to reflect on the decisions that will have to be made swiftly on our return after Easter.”