British Prime Minister Theresa May was set to seek a Brexit compromise with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday, 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, three years after Britons narrowly voted for Brexit in a referendum, it is still unclear how, when or even whether it will exit 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. One minister 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.
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 Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Ireland would support a delay but Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said there was currently no reason to agree an extension.
And European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Britain would not get any further short delays to Brexit 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.
“A ‘no-deal’ at midnight on the 12th of April is now a very likely scenario,” he told the European Parliament.
He reiterated that Britain would not get a transition period to soften the impact of leaving the EU unless it ratified the exit deal: “UK will be affected more than EU because there is no such thing as a ‘managed or negotiated no-deal’ and there is no such thing as a ‘no-deal transition’.”
As things stand, Britain will still leave the EU on April 12 without a deal, a scenario many Conservative lawmakers would welcome, but that businesses fear could cause huge economic damage.
A survey of services firms ranging from banks to high-street hairdressers on Wednesday suggested the world’s fifth-biggest economy was likely to shrink in the coming months because of Brexit uncertainty.
May and Corbyn will meet at 1330 GMT but may struggle to find a compromise position that can satisfy their own parties.
“I realise some of you will be concerned about the government discussing the way forward with the opposition,” May said in a letter to Conservative lawmakers on Wednesday.
“However, with some colleagues unwilling to support the government ... this is the only way to deliver the smooth, orderly Brexit that we promised.”
Conservative divisions over Europe are decades old and have led to the demise of three prime ministers: David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
‘It’s a trap’
Labour is also far from united. 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.
A Labour spokesman said the party was ready for serious discussion if May was ready to relax the ‘red lines’ she had so far set in negotiations.
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.
Pro-EU Labour lawmaker Ben Bradshaw warned: “It is clearly a trap designed to try to get May’s terrible deal through, which some people have fallen for, but Labour mustn’t.”
It is also unclear where May’s last-ditch bid will leave her minority government. The Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Irish party whose support she needs to govern, said it was wary of making any deal with a man whom many in May’s party have demonised.
“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.
“If you give legitimacy to a man that I think is genuinely not fit to run Britain and will do it damage, you will damage the very prospects of your own party and, most importantly for people like me, the prospects for our country.”