(Written by Ellen Barry)
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn eyed each other uncertainly Wednesday, like two subjects in a laboratory experiment.
Wednesdays are the days, in British politics, when the leaders of the government and the opposition face off in the scorched-earth partisan slugfest known as Prime Minister’s Questions.
It is a spectator sport: For 30 minutes, the leaders skewer each other with clever put-downs and hostile questions, each backed by hundreds of lawmakers mooing and jeering in concert.
But this Wednesday was different.
Prime Minister May and Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, were preparing to try something truly risky — to set their party loyalties to the side and try to devise a plan together, in a last-ditch effort to save Britain from a chaotic exit from the European Union.
Cross-party cooperation goes so profoundly against the grain, in Britain’s old, tribal Parliament, that Wednesday had a slightly unreal feeling as if the laws of physics had been suspended.
May and Corbyn circled each other gingerly during Wednesday’s question time, glancing one by one over issues that divided them — unemployment, the minimum wage, the cost of television licenses — but they were phoning it in. Neither mentioned the one thing that mattered: Brexit, and their coming talks.
It fell to May’s own party members, trained to fear and mistrust Corbyn, to nail her to the wall.
“Prime Minister, if it comes to the point where we have to balance the risk of a no-deal Brexit versus the risk of letting the country down and ushering in a Marxist, anti-Semite-led government, what does she think at that point is the lowest risk?” asked Caroline Johnson, a Conservative who had, up until now, displayed staunch loyalty.
She was referring to accusations that under Corbyn, the Labour party has failed to tackle anti-Semitism within its ranks.
Lee Rowley, another Conservative lawmaker, reminded the prime minister of words she had spoken last week, when she said Corbyn was “the biggest threat to our standing in the world, to our defence and to the economy.”
“In her judgment,” he continued, “what now qualifies him for involvement in Brexit?”
The rumblings from Tory Brexiteers were ominous all day. Two ministers resigned in protest over the talks between May and Corbyn, one sputtering his outrage that “you and your cabinet have decided that a deal — cooked up with a Marxist who has never once in his political life put British interests first — is better than no deal.”
Then May and Corbyn vanished into a room with their teams, and, shortly thereafter, a great thunderclap split the air above Westminster.
There was nothing to do but wait.
“Will they put party before country? Or country before party?” asked Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester. ”There was always going to come a moment when the irresistible force of tribal partisan loyalties and distrust of the opposition came up against the immovable object of a no-deal Brexit deadline.”
“If they don’t do something,” he added, “they’re all going down together.”
By compromising, each runs the risk of inflicting permanent damage on their parties. And one thing they have in common is that their entire adult lives have been invested in party activism.
Corbyn, who grew up in the prosperous and conservative Wiltshire countryside, made the unusual choice to sign up with the Young Socialists, Labour’s youth wing, at 16. As a teenager, May spent weekends with Tory matrons stuffing envelopes and delivering flyers.
“The party is her life,” Ford said. “She is an old-school kind of politician. Her whole life is bound up with it.”
By pivoting to a form of Brexit that Corbyn could endorse, likely one with closer ties to the European Union, May will lose the votes of 40 or 50 of her own lawmakers, but could potentially gain 150 votes from Labour lawmakers, Ford said.
Labour is deeply split, with a large faction intent on stopping Brexit altogether. Many Labour supporters warned Corbyn against cooperating with the prime minister, cautioning that she might be setting a trap so that Labour would be held responsible for a failed policy.
Grace Blakeley, who covers economics for the New Statesman and supports Labour, said she had come to the view that Corbyn should compromise.
“Initially I would have said absolutely not,” she said. “But at the moment there is so much general disdain directed toward our political class, and that hasn’t discriminated according to party. There has been a bit of antipathy toward Labour as well.”
The vast majority of people in Britain, she said, “are looking at the politicians and saying, ‘Why can’t they get on with it?’”
Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, imagined the meeting as “stiff and formal, not showing the warmth of human interaction that good negotiation surely needs.” In their public debates, he said, Corbyn generally stuck to diatribes about poverty, but May was often “banging on about him personally.”
“This is not the best starting point for a handshake over a glass of whiskey,” he said.
Startlingly, nothing leaked from the leaders’ two-hour meeting until late afternoon, when the city was enveloped by a freak hailstorm.
After the meeting, the government’s spokesman called the talks “constructive.”
Corbyn released a statement saying he and May had discussed the benefits of a customs union but made no commitments.
“I also raised the prospect of a confirmatory vote,” he said, meaning a public vote seeking approval of any deal. “The prime minister remained resistant to this proposal,” he wrote.
The government said the talks would continue. If the two leaders are able to agree on a plan, it could be put to a House of Commons vote Monday.