June 12, 2017 / 9:53 AM / 2 months ago

British parties all gain if they share Brexit pain

Protestor wearing a Theresa May mask is seen the day after Britain's election in London, Britain June 9, 2017.Clodagh Kilcoyne

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain’s warring political parties can all gain if they share the Brexit pain. The Conservative party’s loss of a majority in last week’s general election weakens its hand in talks with the European Union. Bringing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour into talks could strengthen it, and cut the chance of a chaotic exit. If, that is, Corbyn can be persuaded to collaborate.

Prime minister Theresa May will struggle to convince her EU counterparts that the UK can stick to any agreement she strikes, after her bid to strengthen control failed. They also know May risks a party split whatever terms she agrees, either by angering the “hard” Brexiteers or the pro-Europeans in her party. That ultimately hurts Britain, and businesses may curtail investment if they fear a government collapse. Some 57 percent of UK businesses are now pessimistic about the economy, compared with 34 percent before the election, according to an Institute of Directors survey.

The obvious solution is for May’s Conservatives to bring the opposition Labour party into talks. That might involve current Brexit negotiators taking instructions directly from a cross-party committee, or even delegating the process to a new group. That would give the UK a more credible negotiating position, and give businesses some clarity. It would allow parties to put some distance between the Brexit outcome and day-to-day domestic politics.

Two groups might reject such a deal. One is the fringe within the Conservative party that wants an abrupt exit, and would see their hand diluted. Yet their leverage is currently limited: they are unlikely to try and bring down the government while Labour is strong. The other is Corbyn. The current situation allows him to remain ambiguous over what kind of exit he wants, drawing support both from voters who want to leave and from those who want to stay. A Conservative split could accelerate his route to power.

Yet cooperation on Brexit is in Corbyn’s interests too. If the Conservatives collapse, he will find himself in a similarly tricky position, struggling to reconcile the different views of his voters. If May reached out to him, he declined to help and talks broke down, he might be partly blamed for the resulting mess.

May’s career is probably over anyway. Reaching out to Labour would show her as a leader who put her country before her party. That is no bad legacy.

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