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Last Exit From Brexit?

Labour and Conservative leaders take a sudden U-turn on separation from the EU.

Pro-Brexit supporters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Feb. 26. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Pro-Brexit supporters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Feb. 26. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

It took two parliamentary rebellions and two leadership U-turns. But in just 24 hours, Britain’s months-long deadlock on Brexit has been broken—and the trajectory of the United Kingdom’s proposed exit from the European Union has been altered fundamentally.

The first seismic shift came on Monday, when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that his party would not only formally propose a second referendum on Britain’s membership but also campaign to remain in the EU. The second came on Tuesday morning, when embattled Prime Minister Theresa May offered Parliament the option of pushing back the current March 29 deadline for Brexit if her own deal fails to get enough support by March 12.

Both changes mark a dramatic shift in Parliament’s hitherto stalled debate. Labour, for the first time in two years, has finally sent a clear signal that it officially opposes what Corbyn called “a damaging Tory Brexit.” And the Conservatives have effectively abandoned the single scariest weapon in their battle to persuade rebellious members to back May’s deal—that the alternative will be a disastrous and chaotic exit from the EU with no deal at the end of March.

Corbyn’s move “could prove a historic milestone in the struggle to stop Brexit,” wrote Hugo Dixon, the deputy chair of the People’s Vote campaign that has been lobbying for a second Brexit referendum. Anti-Brexit Labour Member of Parliament David Lammy hailed it as “the beginning of Labour uniting the country again. … Labour’s decision to finally listen to its members, young people and what is now a majority of the country could be the first step to putting this sorry saga in British history to an end.”

At the same time, pro-Brexit Conservative MPs decried May’s proposal to delay for exactly the same reason. “My suspicion is that any delay to Brexit is a plot to stop Brexit,” tweeted Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the ultra-Euroskeptic European Research Group, whose members prefer to leave the EU with no deal at all rather than accept the compromises that May has negotiated with Brussels. “This would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit,” he told Sky News. “It would be overthrowing the referendum result [and] two general elections … and would undermine our democracy.”

Both Corbyn and May made their U-turns under threat of growing anti-Brexit rebellions inside their own parties. Last week a group of eight Labour MPs abandoned the party in order to found the Independent Group—and were soon joined by three Conservatives. The Labour rebellion was ostensibly triggered by charges of anti-Semitism within the party—but one thing that unites all Independent Group members is a passionate opposition to Brexit. A desire to head off more defections certainly played a role in overcoming Corbyn’s long-standing reluctance to call a second referendum. But the roots of the change went much deeper. “Jeremy [Corbyn] wasn’t given much choice. The parliamentary party hates Brexit. The members hate Brexit,” said a former senior aide to former Prime Minister Tony Blair who knows many of the Independent Group rebels personally. “The [group] was just the tipping point. … It was months of work by the unions and the Labour membership that actually shifted him.”

May, too, was forced to act by the prospect of yet another rebellion in her own party, as large numbers of Conservative MPs prepared to back an amendment forcing the government to ask Brussels to delay the Brexit deadline if her deal with Brussels was not approved by March 12. She also faced an even more serious rebellion within her own cabinet, with up to 18 ministers reportedly threatening to resign if she continued with a no-deal Brexit. Rather than face another defeat in the House of Commons—which voted against her deal by 230 votes in January, the heaviest defeat for any British government in history—May caved in to the rebels’ demands.

“She’s raised the white flag,” one “very unhappy” government minister told ITV correspondent Daniel Hewitt after May announced the prospect of a delay. “I can’t wait for Theresa May to sell her house. I’ll offer 1 pound. She’ll probably say ‘I’ll take 50p.’”

Neither May’s delay in Brexit nor Corbyn’s second referendum are by any means done deals. Both must be approved by Parliament, which for 2½ years has voted down many proposed variants to Brexit but signally failed to actually agree on any one. May, for her part, “seems to have put her money on the [pro-Brexit] ultras finally getting behind her deal for fear that otherwise they’ll get no Brexit at all,” said one senior civil servant with close knowledge of the cabinet’s debates. “Given the numbers [who opposed her deal], that looks like a very long shot. But I think it’s the last possible play for her.”

Crucially, one early victory for the Independent Group rebels was to propose and win a motion last week to force the government to publish the confidential advice prepared by the Civil Service for the government on the effects of a no-deal Brexit. The report showed that Britain stood to lose up to 9 percent of GDP and face shortages of medicine and fresh food—as well as bringing swaths of the U.K.’s manufacturing to a halt due to customs delays. The forensics of that catastrophic scenario fueled the backbench Conservative rebellion against May’s brinkmanship.

“Ultimately the [Conservative] rebels have called her bluff,” said the government aide, who is not authorized to speak on the record. “May always insisted that no-deal had to remain on the table. But now that it looks like that actually might happen in a matter of weeks, sensible ministers have put their foot down. Everyone knows no-deal is a disaster for the country. And that it will lead to the implosion of her government.”

If May’s ploy fails and she does not win support for her deal on March 12, the choice between no-deal and a delay will be up to Parliament. In that scenario, a delay wins hands down.

The path to a second referendum is less clear-cut. Corbyn has insisted that Parliament must first vote on Labour’s own version of Brexit—a Brexit that would leave the U.K. inside the EU’s Customs Union and in close regulatory alignment with Brussels. The scenario is derided by its opponents as “Brexit in Name Only.” Only if—as seems overwhelmingly likely—Labour fails to achieve support for its own plan will the party officially move to support a referendum.

But the new anti-Brexit party line faces much opposition from inside Labour itself. Significant numbers of working-class Labour voters back Brexit—in stark contrast to the mostly urban and educated party membership. Sixty-one percent of Labour constituencies voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. “Four out of five Tory-Labour marginals, Labour’s 25 most vulnerable constituencies … are all leave-voting seats,” Caroline Flint, the Labour MP for Don Valley in South Yorkshire, wrote in the Guardian. “Do we ignore them, or honour our election promises [to respect the referendum result]?” According to a study by the NatCen polling group, the strongest support for Brexit was among people in social housing, people with no formal education, and people who earn less than 1,200 pounds, about $1,600, a month—all key Labour demographics.

Then there’s the ongoing debate over what question should be put to the electorate on a hypothetical second referendum ballot. Labour’s shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry told Channel 4 News on Monday that Labour’s plan would be to have “a referendum on whatever deal it is that may or may not pass through Parliament, and we would be saying to people: ‘Do you want this, or do you want to remain?’” But many of her parliamentary colleagues—including many Conservative backers of Brexit—want the option of no deal on the ballot too. “Significant numbers of voters want to leave without a deal,” Lisa Nandy, a Labour MP, wrote in the Guardian. “As the dust settles on Labour’s announcement this week, major problems emerge. The first is the belief that you can game the system from a desk in Westminster to get the outcome you want.”

Corbyn himself still hasn’t officially confirmed that remaining in the EU should be an option on the ballot—despite being asked no fewer than 23 times where he stood during a meeting of Labour MPs in Parliament on Monday night. Up to 25 Labour rebels could end up voting against a second referendum, according to the Guardian—which may match or outweigh the number of Conservatives who would have to rebel against their own party to get a second referendum to pass. In short, “Labour’s support for a new referendum is a necessary condition to get one,” wrote the People’s Vote’s Hugo Dixon. “But on its own it’s not quite enough.”

Only one thing is certain: The endgame of Brexit will continue to be messy. The EU, for its part, has signaled that it will agree to a delay—but there’s deep unease that a three-month extension to the deadline, as May proposes, will bring any breakthroughs. “What will change, come June? The only meaningful thing would be a second [referendum] vote,” said one senior EU diplomat who has been working on Brexit for two years. “What the EU wants is clarity. … And that seems in short supply in Westminster.”

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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