Shortly after midday Wednesday, Theresa May will have a good idea whether her attempt to save her Brexit deal has any chance of success.
On Tuesday evening, she abandoned her strategy of making Brexit a project of her Conservative Party and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, apparently accepting that this will never gather enough votes to get through Parliament, and asked Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, to rescue her.
At noon, the pair will face each other across the House of Commons, for her weekly Prime Minster’s Questions session. His approach, and her response, will offer a clue as to how their talks about a joint Brexit approach are going to go.
But only some of May’s enemies will be facing her. Behind her on the Conservative benches will be plenty more opponents. Their anger – or silence – will be a guide as to whether her new strategy can survive.
The prime minister’s appeal to Corbyn opens the door to the possibility of a much softer form of Brexit, potentially keeping the UK inside the EU’s customs union. It would be a massive breach of May’s own negotiating red lines, but good news for business. The pound rose.
Corbyn welcomed May’s move and said he would be “very happy” to meet her, and the first response from the EU side was positive. No schedule for discussions has been announced, but May’s office said she wanted to move fast, so it’s likely the pair will sit down in private after their public face-off.
After seven hours of talks with her cabinet ministers, the premier said the UK will need an extra delay beyond next week’s potential cliff-edge deadline of April 12 to resolve the crisis.
“This debate, this division, cannot drag on much longer,” May said in a statement to television cameras at her 10 Downing Street office. “It requires national unity to deliver the national interest.”
The prime minister’s offer to Corbyn is another sign of the desperation and disarray that has overtaken her government as it struggles to complete Britain’s acrimonious separation from the EU. Parliament has rejected the deal she negotiated with the bloc three times, with Corbyn’s Labour consistently voting against it. She has tried cross-party talks before, but they led nowhere.
The offer outraged some Tories. One member of Parliament, Henry Smith, called it a “betrayal”. Another, Marcus Fysh, accused May of “fear and vacillation”. Meanwhile, May’s coalition partners, the DUP, described May’s handling of Brexit as “lamentable”.