In spite of the upbeat signals that came from Jeremy Corbyn’s meeting with Theresa May on Wednesday, experience suggests that it will not prove a turning point on Brexit. Neither of them is a natural negotiator or conciliator. These gifts are not part of their skill sets. Of the friendship that can sometimes exist between rival leaders there is no sign. Corbyn’s public sanctimony towards May can make Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert look like a libertine. May’s default mode towards Corbyn, on show again at question time this week, is to give him her full Lady Disdain.
What is more, even if the two leaders wanted to patch something together, their respective Brexit positions do not allow for much common ground anyway. May’s red lines on leaving the single market and the customs union, ending free movement and escaping the jurisdiction of the European court are mostly mirror images of Corbyn’s. He wants a close relationship with the EU market and on customs, and supports his own version of free movement. The only thing that would seem to unite them is that both want Brexit to happen, preferably under a Conservative government.
Tuesday’s Commons votes, where Tory MPs rallied around a policy very close to the one they demolished two weeks ago, seem to separate the two leaders still further. Having claimed hers was the only possible deal, May has now pledged to try to change the Northern Ireland backstop arrangement in order to keep her right wing on board. Corbyn, meanwhile, wants her to adopt a soft Brexit approach that would, if she embraced it, trigger a full-scale revolt from her own side and from the Democratic Unionists.
For all those reasons and more, the May-Corbyn negotiations seem a sideshow. May has less need of them now. She has regained a bit of control. Her hardliners kept their swords sheathed. The chief whip and the chairman of the Tory backbenchers both played skilful hands, while pro-remain MPs overplayed theirs this time. A second referendum now looks a more distant prospect. All this has won May a reprieve. Given the stunning 230-vote defeat she suffered on 15 January, that is quite a turnaround.
But it will not last long. It is not the end of the Brexit battle, and it may not even be the beginning of its end either. May’s characterisation of her majority as “substantial and sustainable” is pure wishful thinking. That is because, as others have argued since Tuesday evening, the vote for the Brady amendment was a vote for something that is both vague and unlikely to happen. The European Union has little incentive to agree to it. And, assuming that it will not happen, certainly not in the small window of time now available, it seems odds-on that May will soon be struggling to find a majority once more.
May’s position is neither substantial nor sustainable. It is disjointed and delicate. It bears repeating, after Tuesday’s volte-face, that it was May herself, not the EU, who created the all-UK backstop that she is now seeking to unpick. But the deeper truth, which she must have known when she originally agreed to it in 2017, is that the backstop was an attempt to reconcile three promises that are almost impossible to fit together in one consistent policy.
The first of these is May’s promise to leave the customs union, which she made because she knows that the Thatcherite right of her party, including some of the most fanatical long-term advocates of Brexit, attaches immense importance – though it was barely mentioned in 2016 – to an autonomous trade policy. The second is her promise to Ireland, which in law and by treaty she is duty bound to make, that a new trade regime would not cause the creation of a hard border of any kind. And the third is the promise she made to the DUP after the 2017 election that she would not permit customs and regulatory divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland.
These three promises are mutually contradictory. That was the case before Tuesday and it is still true now. You can’t have an autonomous trade policy and an open border. That is why the backstop exists at all. It is there to ensure that the open border in Ireland remains in force in the face of May’s commitment, driven by her right wing, to a sovereign trade policy. These unavoidable truths are not going to go away just because May and Graham Brady managed to find a form of words about “alternative arrangements” that pulled the Tory party back from an outright split after the 15 January vote against the deal.
Even before the Brady amendment was drafted, the former UK representative to the EU was making clear why this is a non-starter. “We remain firmly in the world of make-believe and fantasies,” Ivan Rogers said in a lecture in London last week. “The prime minister still talks as if the need for a backstop will automatically fall away the moment a full trade deal [between the UK and the EU] is struck … But that is manifestly untrue unless the deal were such as to render the backstop otiose. And that is not the sort of trade deal to which even she aspires.”
This brings us back to the role that Corbyn may yet play. For most of the parliamentary Brexit process, Corbyn has been a large but inert presence. Brexit politics has happened around him, not with or through him. He remains content, it seems, to go through the motions but not to get his hands dirty. Up to a point, it has been a coherent strategy if your three priorities, like Corbyn’s, are for Brexit to happen, for the Tories to own it, and for your own pristine politics to remain unsullied by the most important argument facing the country.
In the end, though, events may be propelling Corbyn to mix with the sweatier end of politics. One pressure is that backbenchers in his party – such as Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn – have emerged as de facto Labour figureheads. Another is that May has begun to engage with workplace and environmental regulatory issues that Labour cares about. Crucially, May’s defeat two weeks ago and her current turn to the Tory right are highlighting the harsh reality of the Brexiter trade autonomy dream that she has now empowered. A more adept Labour leader would have been reaching out relentlessly to Tory moderates over recent months on the customs elements of the eventual UK-EU trade deal, searching for common ground and looking for ways to ensnare them in a shared commitment to the open borders and regulatory alignment that the hard Brexiters so loathe.
Such a thing may yet happen anyway. If May fails to get the changes from the EU that she seeks, and if this week’s Tory party unity comes under strain, as it may, then a space could open up for a softer Brexit deal. Such a deal has always been the least worst viable outcome to Brexit. This week’s events have underscored more than ever why May’s deal and no deal need not be the only options. Even Corbyn must see what is now at stake, and why engaging seriously with May is overwhelmingly in the country’s interest.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist