The Slatest

Today in Brexit: As May Sits Down With Corbyn, Brexiteers Are Resigning in Droves and Sabotaging Trains

Photo illustration showing British trains.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Phil Noble/Reuters.

Today in Brexit is a daily feature that will attempt to keep track of the chaotic mess playing out in the U.K. If you’re just tuning in, here’s a brief explainer on what you’ve been missing. 

Since 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May has attempted to forge a Brexit deal that’s palatable to hard-line Brexiteers in her own party and to her coalition partners, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. But neither were willing to back the deal she negotiated with Brussels. So, Tuesday she announced she was taking a new approach: seeking cross-party support by sitting down with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to come up with a deal they both can back, effectively putting Labour in the driver’s seat. In many ways, this is admirable. May is finally putting what she sees as the country’s interests—avoiding a risky no-deal Brexit—over her party. On the other hand, her new strategy still may not work and may very well tear the Conservative Party apart. Let’s get into it.

Today’s meeting: Corbyn and May held talks Wednesday that both sides described as “constructive.” It’s not clear whether the two will be able to come to an agreement on a Brexit model they both support, or whether they will be able to cobble together enough votes from both parties to pass it if they do. But Corbyn will almost certainly demand that the agreement include a permanent customs union between Britain and the EU, to harmonize trade and avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This was previously a “red line” for May, but she probably wouldn’t have sat down with Corbyn at all if she wasn’t willing to give ground on it.

This new phase will be a trickier one for Corbyn, who has spent the past three years criticizing May’s handling of Brexit from the sidelines. He is under heavy pressure from Labour supporters of a “people’s vote” not to agree to any Brexit model that doesn’t involve a new public referendum. Five smaller parties in Parliament jointly called for a new vote Wednesday. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, the third largest in parliament, warned against accepting a “bad compromise.”

Today in Tory grumbling: May got an earful from members of her party at Prime Minister’s Questions. “Last week in this chamber, the prime minister said the biggest threat to our standing in the world, to our defense and to our economy is the leader of the opposition. In her judgment, what now qualifies him for involvement in Brexit?” asked Conservative MP Lee Rowley. Others referred to media reports that in Tuesday’s meetings, 14 of the 23 members of May’s Cabinet had opposed negotiation with Labour and advocated the U.K. leaving the EU next week without a deal. May denied those reports.

Two Conservative ministers resigned from May’s Cabinet on Wednesday. Brexit department undersecretary Chris Heaton-Harris, a hard-line Brexiteer, quit, saying he couldn’t agree to a further delay. Nigel Adams, an undersecretary for Wales, accused May of trying to “cook up a deal with a Marxist.”

Today in Brussels: None of this should indicate that a no-deal Brexit is off the table. In fact, it’s more likely than ever, according to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

In a speech Wednesday to the European Parliament, Juncker said, “I believe that a ‘no deal’ at midnight on the 12 April is now a very likely scenario.” May announced Tuesday that she plans to ask the EU for another extension of the Brexit deadline—currently April 12—but doesn’t want to go past May 22, which would require Britain to take part in EU elections.

Juncker said that the EU would agree to a May 22 extension only if Parliament passes May’s withdrawal agreement by the end of next week. Otherwise, the only choices would be a “hard Brexit” or a longer delay.

EU leaders are meeting on Wednesday to consider their options.

Today’s votes: The House of Commons saw its first tied vote in 39 years, when MPs voted 310–310 on a motion to hold a new round of “indicative votes” on alternative Brexit models. House Speaker John Bercow broke the tie by voting no. Parliament has already held two rounds of these indicative votes, and no option has been able to win a majority. Because this is Brexit, there’s still a decent chance the indicative votes could happen next week.

Parliament did pass a motion to start debate on a bill that seeks to prevent a no-deal Brexit by requiring the prime minister, by law, to ask the EU for an extension of Article 50 if there’s no deal in place by April 12.

Of course, the EU would still need to agree to that even if the bill passes. The bill could pass Wednesday night and could go to the House of Lords later this week where the Guardian reports it may face a filibuster from Brexiteers.

Today in sabotage: Police found two “malicious obstructions” on train tracks in Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire, which appear to be  “a serious and deliberate attempt by someone to cause significant sabotage and disruption to Britain’s rail network.” A note was attached to the short-circuiting devices reading, “We will bring this country to its knees if we don’t leave.” This follows an incident Friday, the day Britain was originally supposed to leave the EU, in which a Brexit supporter waving an English St. George’s flag climbed onto the roof of London’s St. Pancras Station, disrupting service on Eurostar trains. The man said he was angry at politicians for having “fucked up Brexit.”

In another sign of just how raw the country’s politics are getting, the British military is investigating a video of soldiers in Afghanistan using a photo of Corbyn for target practice.

Days left until next deadline: 9