–Britain’s Labour Party had ‘constructive’ Brexit talks with PM May
LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May met opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday to seek a way out of a Brexit stalemate, a gamble that could see a European Union divorce deal finally clear parliament but also tear her party apart.
The United Kingdom was supposed to leave the EU last Friday, but, nearly three years after Britons narrowly voted for Brexit in a referendum, it is still unclear how, when or even whether it will quit the bloc.
After her EU withdrawal deal was rejected three times by lawmakers, with parliament and her Conservative Party hopelessly divided over Brexit, May said she would talk to the Labour Party leader in a bid to overcome what is now a national crisis.
“There are actually a number of areas we agree on in relation to Brexit … what we want to do now is to find a way forward that can command the support of this House and deliver on Brexit,” May told parliament.
However, by approaching Corbyn, a veteran socialist loathed by many of May’s Conservatives and mocked by May herself as unfit to govern, she risks further inflaming divisions in her party. Two junior ministers quit on Wednesday.
“It now seems 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’,” Nigel Adams said as he resigned as a minister for Wales.
May turned to Labour after a hardcore eurosceptic group of Conservatives repeatedly rejected her divorce deal, saying it would leave Britain a ‘vassal state’.
Labour wants to stay in a customs union with the EU, raising the likelihood of a “soft” Brexit option that keeps Britain’s economy closely aligned to the world’s biggest trading bloc.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the government would accept a soft Brexit if parliament voted for it. Sterling hit its highest level since March 28. [GBP/].
May said on Tuesday she would seek “as short as possible” a delay to the current Brexit date of April 12, having repeatedly said she did not want Britain to have to take part in European Parliament elections on May 23.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he believed EU leaders were open to further delay and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would “fight until the last minute” for an orderly British exit.
But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Britain would not get any further short delays unless its parliament ratified a deal by April 12 – the date set by EU leaders as the effective cut-off for avoiding the European Parliament elections.
Many Conservative lawmakers say Britain would flourish if it left without any agreement and traded under fallback World Trade Organisation terms, but businesses fear this would cause huge economic damage.
Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s economic affairs and tax commissioner, warned the bloc would immediately bring in customs checks and import duties if Britain left without a deal, which he said would create major disruptions at ports.
A survey of British services firms ranging from banks to high-street hairdressers on Wednesday suggested the world’s fifth-biggest economy was already likely to shrink in the coming months because of Brexit uncertainty.
May and Corbyn began meeting at 1330 GMT, though it was not clear how they could both satisfy their own parties.
In a letter to Conservative lawmakers, May said she realised that some would be “concerned” about such talks.
Conservative divisions over Europe are decades old and have led to the demise of three prime ministers: David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
Yet Labour is also far from united, and some of its lawmakers said it was being lured into a trap that would force it to share the blame if Brexit was seen as a failure.
Corbyn, who voted against joining the bloc in 1975, has said Brexit should include a customs union with the EU and protection for consumer and environmental standards and workers’ rights.
Many supporters want the party to throw its weight behind a second referendum. But some Labour lawmakers who represent areas that voted strongly to leave the EU not only reject this but also fear that a ‘soft’ Brexit would be seen as a betrayal.
Corbyn said any agreement that he struck with May – who has promised to resign if a Brexit deal is passed – must be set in law to guarantee that it could not be changed by any successor.
Other opposition parties held their own meeting, calling for any Brexit deal to be put to a second public vote.
It is also unclear where May’s last-ditch bid will leave her minority government.
“I would simply counsel my government and my party and my prime minister: ‘Stop, think very carefully what you are doing’,” former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith told BBC TV.