Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn’s teams will meet for more “technical” talks on Thursday after two hours of what the Labour leader described as “inconclusive” talks between the two leaders failed to create a breakthrough.
Both the Labour and Conservative teams involved in Wednesday’s talks described them as “constructive” but hopes of bringing forward a deal this week appear to have faded.
One government source told Buzzfeed that the talks “did not go well.”
“Corbyn made a series of demands other than a customs union but May would not give a view on whether she was willing to accept them,” Buzzfeed journalist Alex Wickham reported .
May’s decision to reach out to the Labour leader has prompted a furious backlash from Conservative Members of Parliament.
Two Conservative ministers resigned on Wednesday and dozens of Conservative MPs are reported to have threatened a “vote strike” meaning they could refuse to back legislation and bring the government to a standstill if May tries to soften up her Brexit deal.
Signs of this were clear on Wednesday evening when a series of government amendments were defeated heavily in the House of Commons after Conservative MPs rebelled against the party whip.
A number of Conservative backbenchers also attempted to hold an unofficial vote of no confidence in their party leader on Wednesday, but were blocked by party authorities.
On the Labour side, there is growing concern among supporters of a second referendum that Jeremy Corbyn will agree to a deal which doesn’t involve holding a second referendum.
In a move designed to commit Jeremy Corbyn to demanding a vote, Labour’s shadow foreign minister Emily Thornberry wrote to party colleagues on Thursday insisting that the party mustn’t agree to any deal without a referendum attached, saying: “Any deal agreed by Parliament must be subject to a confirmatory public vote, and yes, the other option on the ballot must be Remain.”
Many Eurosceptic Tories would rather the prime minister took the EU without a deal on April 12, when the UK is set to leave by law.
However, the House of Commons on Monday voted by a margin of just one vote to rule such an option out and force the government to delay Brexit to avoid no deal. The bill, tabled by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin and Labour MP Yvette Cooper, raced through the Commons in less than six hours.
The new legislation is set to arrive in the Lords on Thursday, where Eurosceptic peers could try and frustrate its passage through the House.
The prime minister and leader of the opposition agreed yesterday that both sides would hold talks again today to see if the political declaration, dealing with the future UK-EU relationship, could be tweaked to better fit Labour policy, which calls for a permanent customs union and closer alignment with the EU single market.
The problem for May is that, while talks yesterday covered technical aspects of a customs union, any move to soften up her deal and win Corbyn’s support would risk outrage from her parties and likely prompt Cabinet resignations. A large majority of Conservative MPs are opposed en masse to remaining in the customs union just 36 voted in favour of one in non-binding votes last week and May would likely face Cabinet resignations if she ordered her party to support one.
Corbyn is also wary of striking a deal and being seen to help deliver a Conservative-led Brexit, although he is also concerned that calling for a second referendum could damage Labour’s standing in the polls.
Neither is there any warmth in the relationship between the government and Labour leadership. Speaking on Thursday, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4: “I profoundly disagree with Jeremy Corbyn on the economy. He’s a Marxist and would do profound damage to the economy.”
He added that the Labour leader was “also extremely dangerous on security matters.”
It is therefore unlikely that both sides will be able to strike an agreement by next Wednesday’s European summit, the point by which Theresa May realistically needs to take a proposal that commands support from a majority of the Commons to avoid a lengthy delay.
A request from the UK to extend Article 50 is therefore very likely. The EU27 are likely to grant an extension which involves the UK taking part in European elections, which will cause further outrage from Tory benches.