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Prime Minister Theresa May changes course on Brexit

May said she would seek a longer extension to avoid a no-deal on April 12 — and that she’d work with the opposition Labour Party to agree to a new plan.

Theresa May Holds Press Conference After All-day Cabinet Meeting
British Prime Minister Theresa May on April 2, 2019.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is gambling on a new plan to break the Brexit stalemate.

May announced Tuesday she would seek a longer extension from the European Union to avert a no-deal Brexit on April 12. She also said she would meet with opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to come up with a compromise Brexit plan.

“Today, I am taking action to break the logjam,” May said in a speech Tuesday. “I am offering to sit down with the leader of the opposition and to try to agree a plan — that we would both stick to — to ensure that we leave the European Union and that we do so with a deal.”

May added that she would ask the EU to postpone the Brexit deadline until May 22. That would allow the UK to avoid taking part in the European parliamentary elections starting May 23, while still giving her time to forge a compromise deal and win approval for it from the UK Parliament.

May’s speech definitely shows a change in strategy, though whether it will really solve Brexit or just lead to another stunning disaster is absolutely unclear.

But it’s still significant. May’s overtures toward Labour almost certainly increases the odds of a softer Brexit, in which the UK would stay closely aligned with EU rules on trade (details still to be determined, of course).

And it suggests that May is prepared to abandon her “red lines” — terms she’s previously said the UK would not accept — that she has rigidly stuck to throughout the Brexit negotiations up to this point.

The only problem? It may be too little, too late.

What to make of May’s speech

May seems to be giving up on getting the support of hardline Brexiteers in her party, who will reject any plan that promises close ties between the UK and the EU after Brexit happens. These members of her party are also unlikely to quietly resign themselves to May’s new strategy.

So there’s going to be backlash — it’s just not clear what form it will take. A report in the Guardian suggested some rebel Conservatives would join the opposition in a no-confidence vote to remove May from power rather than accept a soft Brexit or long delay. And that was before May’s speech on Tuesday.

Another question is whether this pivot is too little, too late. May could have made more aggressive overtures to the Labour at the start of the Brexit negotiations more than two years ago; instead, she’s making the effort with less than two weeks to go until the UK’s departure date.

Corbyn said Tuesday that he would be “very happy to meet” May, although he didn’t really sound that enthusiastic about it.

“We recognize that she has made a move, I recognize my responsibility to represent the people that supported Labour in the last election and the people who didn’t support Labour but nevertheless want certainty and security for their own future,” Corbyn told the Press Association news agency, “and that’s the basis on which we will meet her and we will have those discussions.”

So it’s a start. But Corbyn and the Labour Party are going to come forward with their own demands, and May said little in her speech about how far she is willing to go to reach a compromise.

May did say any deal would still require Parliament to pass her Brexit withdrawal agreement — the divorce settlement — and that the focus of any discussions will be on shaping the future EU-UK relationship. And any agreement May and Corbyn reach still has to get the support of a divided Parliament, which has also had trouble making up its mind of late.

Let’s not forget about the European Union. EU leaders will have to go along with any plan, both when it comes to agreeing to the UK’s approach to a future relationship and on granting the UK another Brexit extension.

EU leaders have already laid out a clear timetable for the UK: The EU offered May an extension until May 22 only if Parliament passed the Brexit deal last week, which it failed to do. The EU said the UK could still seek a longer delay, but one that would likely be many months and require the UK to participate in European parliamentary elections.

May wants to avoid European elections because it’s politically unpalatable among Brexit supporters. But it’s not clear if this new strategy — whip up a tweaked deal, then get it through Parliament in a month — is something the EU would back without reservations or conditions.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, urged patience. But that patience has already been sorely tested among EU leaders.

May’s speech might offer a potential breakthrough on settling the EU-UK breakup — or it might devolve into more omnishambles. This is Brexit, after all. The odds of something going sideways are, as always, high.